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Cannabis industry jobs requiring life sciences background called ‘booming’

May 27, 2017

Most people are aware that legal use of marijuana is expanding in the U.S., with Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Washington, DC legalizing at least some use of marijuana for recreational purposes.

What most people probably don’t know is that biopharmaceutical use of cannabis is also growing. This is likely to have an impact on life scientists as they look for work.

As Clifford Mintz, writing for BioJobBlog said, “Consider that growing and cultivating marijuana and extracting cannabinoids (the pharmaceutically active molecule in cannabis buds) require a background in laboratory methods, chemistry, biology and in some cases plant science. For those of you who may not know, the medical cannabis market is focusing almost exclusively on cannabis extracts and vaporization of these extracts (rather than smoking) as the preferred delivery methods. This suggests that those of you with backgrounds in biomedical engineering and medical devices can leverage your expertise and skills to obtain jobs in the delivery side of the cannabis industry.”

Other potential areas include quality control and quality assurance, diagnostic jobs, as well as molecular biology and bioinformatics jobs. This article will touch on both sides: the biopharma side and for want of a better description, the agricultural/recreational/medicinal side.

A Little Science

Smoking marijuana gets you high. That much is understood. And it appears to stimulate appetite, among other things. Saoirse O’Sullivan, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham, UK, a leading cannabinoid researcher, told SelectScience, “We used to think that the effects of the cannabis plant were non-specific, and that the plant compounds didn’t interact directly with the cell membrane. However, in 1992, scientists discovered the presence of cannabinoid receptors. These receptors, cannabinoid 1 (CB1) and cannabinoid 2 (CB2), bind to the main active ingredients in cannabis, as well as endocannabinoids produced naturally by the body. These receptors are expressed ubiquitously in cells throughout the human body.”

And as she points out, this had led to a few new medicines, including Epiodiolex to prevent convulsions in epilepsy and Sativex (nabixoimols) in multiple sclerosis. Her own work is into cannabinoids and potential treatment of stroke, as well as gut inflammation and sepsis. “Endocannibinoids,” she says, “protect the gut barrier, preventing bacteria from entering the circulation. We are carrying out research on the potential benefits of cannabinoids on gut health, using cell-based assays as well as healthy volunteer human trials.”

Profiles of 3 Cannabis Biopharma Companies

Although the number of companies focused on cannabis research isn’t large, it’s growing, largely because it’s an untapped area of research.

1. Medicinal Genomics

Based in Woburn, Mass., Medicinal Genomics uses DNA technology to better understand cannabis genetics with the idea of helping growers, dispensaries, and testing laboratories. The company grew out of Courtagen Life Sciences, a CLIA-certified genetics laboratory specializing in identifying rare pediatric neurological disorders.

The company currently focuses on microbial testing, strain identification and registration, and plant sex testing. As such, it falls loosely under the category of an agricultural services and support company.

2. CV Sciences

Based in Las Vegas, Nevada and San Diego, Calif., CV Sciences has two distinct divisions: pharmaceuticals and consumer products. Its Pharmaceutical Division is developing synthetically-formulated cannabidiol-based medicines. Its Consumer Products Division delivers botanical-based cannabidiol products to be sold in health food stores, physician’s offices and online.

3. CannabisScience

Based in Irvine, Calif., CannabisScience is developing cannabinoid-based therapies. It has three specific programs, CS-TATI-1, CS-S/BCC-1, and CS-NEURO-1. CS-TATI-1 is being developed as a potential treatment for drug-resistant HIV and Kaposi sarcoma. CS-S/BCC-1 is being evaluated in skin cancer patients with basal and squamous cell carcinomas. CS-NEURO-1 is being developed for neurobehavioral disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and anxiety.

Other biopharma companies in the cannabis sector include GW Pharmaceuticals (GWPH), Insys Therapeutics (INSY), Cara Therapeutics (CARA) and Zynerba Pharmaceuticals (ZYNE).

Business Potential

New Frontier Data, a business intelligence company, projects that more than 250,000 jobs related to growing and selling cannabis will be created in the U.S. by 2020. For the most part, this appears to focus on recreational and medicinal marijuana, as opposed to biopharmaceutical drug development. Medical cannabis sales are projected to grow from $4.7 billion last year to $13.3 billion in 2020. Recreational marijuana sales are expected to increase from $2.6 billion in 2016 to $11.2 billion by 2020.

In a 2014 article in Chemical & Engineering, it was noted that at the time in the U.S. alone, there were 25 analytical companies and “a growing number of chemists (who) are legally and gainfully employed conducting extractions, purifications, and infusions of cannabis products. Large companies such as Bayer (BAY) and GW Pharmaceuticals also provide chemists the opportunities to work with cannabis.”

And if—probably when—recreational and medical marijuana use expands in the U.S., there will be increasing need for scientists involved in quality control and assurance, evaluations, and probably modifications, for tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana) in different strains and marketed products.

A 2016 article in Wired, writes, “But any remotely dedicated smoker will tell you that a strain is more than its potency. Purple Kush and Sour Diesel have different characters, different smells and tastes and feels. Those are the results of the interactions of hundreds of molecules—cannabinoids, yes, but also another class called terpenoids. Myrcene, for example, smells like hops and mango (and some fans claim it increases the potency of THC). Beta-caryophyllene has the scent of pepper. There’s also ocimene, nerolidol, pinene—the interaction of all these chemicals creates whatever distinction exists between ’78 LA OG Affie and, say, Green Crack.”

That sort of analysis, likely tied into future marketing plans, will require dedicated scientists with experience in plant genetics and analytical chemistry.

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