Jessica McKeil   |   May 19, 2020

Nanotechnology in Cannabis: Hot Technology, but is it Safe?

Is adding another variable to an equation of unknowns safe?
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…

The global nanotechnology market could hit $125 billion by the year 2024, at least according to a new analysis by Research and Markets. A percentage of that astronomical number will be thanks to the expansion of nanotech within the cannabis industry. Today, nanoemulsions are trendy. They are the hot new technology taking over cannabis consumer products like cosmetics, nutraceuticals, and pharmaceuticals. 

But, beneath the hype are serious questions about the safety of cannabinoid nanoemulsions. Not only are there questions about the safety of the technology more broadly, but there are real concerns about applications in cannabis. Nanoemulsion changes cannabinoids in specific ways, but ways we don't yet seem to understand.

A Brief Introduction to Nanoemulsion Technology

Nanotechnology encompasses several different processes, including macroemulsions, microemulsions, and nanoemulsions, each describing a progressively smaller particle size. Macro and microemulsions are commonly deployed in food, chemical, and pesticide industries, but nanoemulsions (quantifying particle sizes of between 20 and 200 nm) are relatively new phenomenons. They are primarily used within the cannabis, pharmaceutical, and cosmetic industries.

The cannabis industry has dived headfirst into nanotechnology because it solves two challenges posed by cannabinoids: bioavailability and water solubility. Naturally, cannabinoids are hydrophobic, which means the human body doesn't efficiently absorb them. Especially for the pharmaceutical and nutraceutical industries, this poses a problem. Nanoemulsion reduces the particle size to circumvent these issues, improving absorption and water solubility.

Concerns About Nanotech Began Well Before its Adoption by the Cannabis Industry

Long before the cannabis industry began experimenting with nanoemulsions, there were questions about the safety of the technology when used within products destined for human consumption. Above all else, the current research shows us that nanoparticles have very different properties than their original particle-selves.

Kishore P Madhwani, a consultant for Hindustan Unilever Limited, published "Safe development of nanotechnology: A global challenge" in 2013. In his piece, he describes how nanoparticles often demonstrate dramatically new properties than their original form. As they exhibit markedly different "physical, chemical and biological behavior" than the larger particle, Madhwani raises concerns about exposure, accidental or otherwise.

Most scientists would agree that we still barely understand the behavior of cannabinoids in the human body, let alone nanoemulsions of these compounds. As only one example, research from 2009 detailed how a pharmaceutical nanoemulsion ended up causing lung damage in animal trials as it unexpectedly permeated lung tissues.

Thus far, the study of cannabinoid nanoparticles in vivo is limited—almost nonexistent. Without any scientific understanding, it's led many to question the continued production and sale of nano-cannabinoid products to consumers. If nanoemulsions mean cannabinoids may travel into and subsequently affect different tissues than expected, shouldn't there be significant, controlled clinical trials before these products are available for use?

Outside of cannabis, several recent publications have highlighted the unknowns swirling around nanotechnology. In the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, authors Raffaele Conte, Valentina Marturano, et al. discussed the potential issues of nanoemulsion in "Recent Advances in Nanoparticle-Mediated Delivery of Anti-Inflammatory Phytocompounds."

In this 2017 publication, they explained, "Some drawbacks need to be addressed, e.g., instability during blood circulation, low renal clearance, limited accumulation in specific tissues, and low uptake by target cells. Moreover, case by case evaluation of the interactions between nanocarriers and biological systems is of key importance to assess the reliability of the delivery systems." To date, these questions haven't been addressed with any cannabinoid nanoemulsions.

Cannabinoid Nano Technology Highlights a Divided Industry

After a conversation with Dr. Rebecca White, CTO at Trait Biosciences, it became clear that not everyone working in the cannabis industry is on board with nanotechnology. Trait Biosciences works with growers and on consumer applications to deliver a more consistent and safe end product through groundbreaking research and development. They currently offer Trait Distilled, Amplified, and Zero, among other innovations.

White confirmed that from the standpoint of Trait Biosciences, there were still too many questions about nanotechnology for the company to pursue that route of investigation.

As she stated, "Again, our task as we've set out for ourselves, is that the consumer has a consistent, safe experience and because there are so many questions around the safety and use of nanotechnologies we just don't feel like its the right thing for us to use going forward." Trait Bio has purposely chosen glycosylation, in place of nanoemulsions, as it's both better understood and a more natural solution to water solubility and bioavailability.

The Real Results from Cannabinoid Nanoemulsions is Unknown

While widely popular, and marketed as the Next Great technology in cannabis, we currently do not have even a basic understanding of the possible biological ramifications of nanotech once unleashed in the human body.

When cannabinoids are broken down into particles a mere fraction of the width of a human hair, their essence changes, and what we thought we know about their therapeutic applications is suddenly very different from reality. Much more research is needed on cannabinoid nanoemulsions before they are developed and sold directly to consumers. That means clinical trials, long-term studies, and actual scientific exploration — not hype.


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