Jessica McKeil   |   May 10, 2021

Lab-Made Cannabinoids

Moving beyond Delta-8 THC, other rare and minor cannabinoids are filtering into the consumer market with biosynthesis.
Jessica McKeil is a cannabis writer based in British Columbia, Canada. She has a passion for cannabis tech and scientific breakthroughs, which has led her to work with some of the industry's biggest brands. She is the owner and lead-writer…

Delta-8-Tetrahydrocannabinol (delta-8 THC) may be getting all the attention these days, but it is far from the only synthetically or biosynthetically produced cannabinoid. With researchers moving on to increasingly rare cannabinoids, chemists seek innovative ways to source large quantities of formerly tricky-to-extract compounds.

Rare cannabinoids like cannabigerol (CBG), cannabigerolic acid (CBGa), cannabinol (CBN), tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCv), and tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCa) all hold immense pharmaceutical potential.

The trick to expanding on this research and eventually meeting market demand is finding an affordable source for large quantities of these cannabinoids. Most cultivars today contain only trace amounts, and the extraction process is time-consuming and expensive.

With the US cannabinoid-based pharmaceutical market predicted to hit $50 billion by 2029, there is an intense drive to find new ways to produce these compounds. This means turning to lab synthesis through processes like isomerization and biosynthesis.

Delta-8, Delta-7, and Delta-10 THC (Isomerization)

Most of the delta-8 THC flooding the consumer market today comes from the conversion of CBD. A minority of companies are also using remediated delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol (delta-9 THC) as the primary ingredient.

Delta-8 THC is an intoxicating cannabinoid described as less potent than its sister cannabinoid, delta-9 THC. Due to the recreational demand for this compound, it's now prolifically produced across the US. Whether or not the Food and Drug Administration and the Drug Enforcement Agency will continue to go along with this interpretation is still unknown.

As explained in "How Delta-8 is Made in the Lab," chemists create delta-8 THC by combining CBD with a non-polar organic solvent and an acid. When heated and stirred (often for as long as 18 hours), the mixture transforms into the desired delta-8 THC cannabinoid.

Although this process requires washing and cleanup, it's relatively affordable and straightforward, especially given the surplus of CBD currently on the market. Similarly, producers are also making other forms of tetrahydrocannabinol, like Delta 7 and Delta 10 THC, which are starting to surface in consumer retail in the form of vape cartridges and gummies.

Biosynthesis: CBG, CBD, CBDa, and Beyond

In a recent interview, Dr. Andrea Holmes from Precision Plant Molecules, pondered, “I don’t why there’s so much hype around Delta-8 THC, what about Delta-10, Delta-7, and even CBN? These are all biosynthesized in a lab, but we’re picking on just one.”

In fact, a growing number of companies in the cannabinoid space, including Precision Plant Molecules, Hyasynth, and Colorado Chromatography, are working on alternative lab-grown solutions of a wide variety of rare, minor cannabinoids.

Under the biosynthetic model, chemists work with genetically modified yeast or bacteria. These GMO organisms become tiny factories designed to produce specific cannabinoids like CBD and CBDa. This method is much more scalable and cost-effective than indoor, greenhouse, or even outdoor plant-based operations.

As per a recent piece by BNN Bloomberg, the price of these biosynthetically produced cannabinoids could be as low as 10 cents per gram. The lab-grown cannabinoids and those extracted from cannabis plants are completely fungible. What's more, their production is predictable, controllable, and efficient.

Spice, K2, and More Notorious Synthetic Cannabinoids

Cannabis plants naturally produce more than 100 known cannabinoids, all structurally similar at the molecular level. Both the isomerization and biosynthesis processes highlighted above seek to recreate known (and natural) phytocannabinoids.

However, more notorious synthetic cannabinoids play with the molecular structure to create wholly synthetic compounds unknown in nature.

These chemicals, with names like HU-210, JWH-018, JWH-073, AM-2201and UR-144, mimic phytocannabinoids but with slight structural changes at the atomic level. Initially designed for research purposes only, they have been adopted wholesale by the illicit drug market.

Synthetic cannabinoids were popularized on the black market in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Sold under the umbrella name "Spice" or "K2," these drugs had a reputation as a 'legal' high, but one often paired with significant toxicity. These compounds have been linked to overdose deaths, liver toxicity, heart attacks, and other severe medical conditions.

The recreational use of these substances is waning in regions with recreational and medicinal cannabis programs. Still, they do remain dangerous street-level drugs with potentially disastrous results for users.

Unlike the lab-made cannabinoids now underproduction through conversion or biosynthesis, these chemicals have not been tested extensively. Researchers have a much more limited understanding of what effects they produce and their side effect profile.

The Future of Cannabinoids in the Lab

There will certainly always be a market for flower and full-spectrum cannabis extracts. Still, the growing medical potential for isolated cannabinoids means there is a need for a cost-effective source.

Extracting rare cannabinoids from plant material is neither predictable nor efficient. Biosynthesis and isomerization techniques will likely become the new normal for cannabinoid production, especially for the pharmaceutical industry. Considering these lab-made compounds are entirely interchangeable with their phytocannabinoid counterparts, these techniques can help fill in the gaps.

 

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