Rethinking Healthcare

DNA sequencing hits new highs with marijuana genomes

DNA sequencing hits new highs with marijuana genomes

Posting in Cancer

The entire genomes of 2 cannabis strains have been sequenced by biotech Medicinal Genomics, which wants to explore the therapeutic plant's anti-cancer properties.

That’s right… the entire genomes of Cannabis sativa and Cannabis indica have been sequenced.

Scientists hope the data will help suss out the plant’s therapeutic benefits, such as fighting cancer, pain, and inflammatory diseases.

As of midnight last night, the raw sequence has been posted on Amazon’s EC2 public cloud computing service by a small startup company called Medicinal Genomics, which aims to explore the genomes of therapeutic plants.

“Despite compelling evidence of the therapeutic benefits of Cannabis, very little genomics research has been performed in this area,” says founder Kevin McKernan.

His interest in sequencing cannabis was piqued by a 2003 Nature Reviews Cancer paper about its many potential uses... in addition to preventing nausea, vomiting, and pain for cancer patients, active Cannabis components seem to inhibit tumor growth.

The new compilation comprises over 131 billion bases of sequence – the largest known gene collection of the Cannabis genomes. (The National Center for Biotechnology Information had 2 million bases.)

However, these are still fragmented snippets. The new work is a “draft assembly,” as McKernan calls it, and hasn’t yet been published in a peer-reviewed academic journal. The genome assemblies should be available to the scientific community this fall.

With the genomes in hand, researchers can begin to identify non-psychoactive compounds or enzyme pathways to better elucidate the therapeutic benefits.

The plant makes chemical components called cannabinoids, a class that includes the psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). McKernan hopes the data will encourage the exploration of a few of the other compounds, and perhaps guide plant breeding programs to generate new Cannabis strains.

In other words, a plant that produces more of certain compounds (such as cannabidiol, which shows promise in early cancer studies) and less of THC... ?

According to McKernan, the Drug Enforcement Agency “says we need more data, and we’re saying, ‘Let’s start actively looking at medical qualities of this. Let’s do everything we can to understand the qualities of this drug.’”

You might have heard of McKernan. He worked on the Human Genome Project from 1996 to 2000 and started a commercial laboratory with his brothers called Agencourt Bioscience, which was sold to Beckman Coulter Inc. in 2005. A spin-out of Agencourt that made sequencing technology was acquired by Applied Biosystems Inc., which combined with Invitrogen Corp. in 2008 to become Life Technologies. McKernan used to lead Life Technologies’s Ion Torrent DNA-sequencing research, Bloomberg reports.

According to Nature News, he dipped into his own bank account to launch Medicinal Genomics, headquartered in Marblehead, Mass. and the Netherlands.

This project cost about $200,000.

The DNA was extracted and prepped for sequencing in a lab in Amsterdam. The team turned to Roche’s 454 Sequencing Center to sequence the Cannabis indica strain on the new GS FLX+ System.

The company plans to sequence more than a dozen Cannabis species, and they’ve pledged to make genome annotations available as an iPad app in the fall.

So this marks the beginning of a more scientific approach to the plant, and the director of the Human Genome Sequencing Center at the Baylor wants to remind you: “this is not really about marijuana; it’s about pharmacology.”

Image of Cannabis sativa via Wiki

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Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure