Despite the restrictions on studying cannabis in the United States because of its federal illegality, scientists in the U.S. and abroad are committed to evaluating the plant closely and uncovering all of its potential medical benefits. In conjunction with that goal, the founders of Medicinal Genomics organized a conference dedicated to the advancement of medicinal cannabis and the sharing of knowledge around the plant. Now in its third year, the CannMed 2018 conference features talks from world-renowned scientists such as Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, Dr. Ethan Russo, Dr. Debra Kimless, and Dr. David Meiri, among others. We recently spoke to Kevin McKernan, the CSO and Founder of Medicinal Genomics, and Doug Kennedy, the CannMed 2018 Conference Director, about their start in the cannabis industry and what to expect from this year’s CannMed conference.
Your company Medicinal Genomics was created when you sequenced the cannabis genome and made it publicly available for research. Can you tell us about that research and how you got started with it?
Kevin McKernan: The inspiration for sequencing the cannabis genome came from multiple friends of mine having family members getting cancer in their 30s or younger. Seemed like a bit of a storm of cancer happening in people that were way too young. At the time, I was at Life Technologies after 5 years of fighting for market share in the Next Generation Sequencing space with the SOLiD sequencer we developed. It was finding its niche in cancer and many cancer centers were using it to create personalized tumor biomarkers. This work took the cover of Science Translational Medicine in 2010 (1) and it heralded in a new way to look at cancer, find its genetic achilles heel, track it, and target it with drugs specific to the mutation in the tumor.
The only downside was the traditional cancer drugs were mostly broad spectrum poisons and not prone to targeting. Then my friends ask about cannabis. Cannabis seems to help with nausea and cachexia, but then I read the Guzman paper (2) and fell down the cannabis rabbit hole. Nontoxic compounds killing tumor cells. Why are these the last line of defense? They should be front line. Then I realized the plants are all different and we needed to get a handle on standardization in the field. We needed the genome sequence to begin this classification process.
In 2015, the Medicinal Genomics team launched a quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) microbial safety testing platform that can be used by cannabis testing laboratories. Please tell us about that work. Why did you feel it was important to make it available to cannabis testing laboratories?
McKernan: Everyone probably hears online that no one ever dies from cannabis, but there have been cases of people dying from what grows on cannabis. In 2011, the knowledge of what microbes grew on the plant was mostly from John McPartland. Great work but mostly performed with traditional microbiology and likely limited to what we can culture. Only 1% of microbes can culture. So we needed a survey of the genetics of the cannabis microbiome and we set out to do that and published those results in open source journals.
How did the first CannMed event come about? What were some of the key takeaways from the 2016 and 2017 events?
McKernan: The first CannMed came about with my infatuation with the International Cannabinoid Research Society (ICRS) conference. It is an excellent conference and everyone serious about the endocannabinoid system (ECS) needs to attend it at least once. That said, the ICRS conference is very much focused on the receptor biology of the ECS. We felt we could augment ICRS with more clinical case studies, personalized genomics, as well as the technology surrounding analytical methods, cultivation, and blockchain and cryptocurrency technologies that are now changing the landscape of the banking and entrepreneurial finance scene in cannabis.
Doug Kennedy: I met with Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, an Israeli organic chemist and professor of Medicinal Chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel. Dr. Mechoulam is best known for his work (together with Y. Gaoni) in the isolation, structure elucidation, and total synthesis of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main active compound in cannabis. His pioneering research had caused many to call him “The Father of Cannabis Research.” We discussed his thoughts about the future of the cannabis field and he shared that he also wanted to create an educational medicinal cannabis conference where he could invest his experience in the future leaders of the field. The McKernan's then decided to underwrite the expenses for the conference and partnered with Dr. Mechoulam to create the CannMed platform. In two years, the conference outgrew the meeting space at Harvard University and it was moved to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
The commitment displayed by the CannMed presentation team each year has built a foundation of knowledge to further the understanding of medicinal uses for cannabis. However, the greatest takeaways from both the 2016 and 2017 conferences were that more scientific data and clinical trials are needed to truly unveil the benefits of this remarkable plant. We are only beginning to see the true healing potential of cannabis.
What are some of the key topics that this year’s CannMed Conference will address?
McKernan: I will be speaking about how cryptocurrencies like Dash are set to revolutionize the cannabis field. Dash funded Medicinal Genomics to make the best cannabis genome reference and this is already leading to new insights in cannabis (3).
Kennedy: We have 31 great presentations planned for CannMed 2018 and seven amazing panel discussions that will feature some of the greatest minds in the industry. Key topics include:
- Treating Cancer with Cannabis
- Treating Neurological Disorders with Cannabis
- Using Cannabis in the Treatment of Opioid Dependence and Abuse
- Innovations in Cultivation and Product Development
- Applying Cryptocurrency and Blockchain Technology to the Cannabis Industry
- Developments in Molecular Science and Cannabis Genetics
- Cannabis Regulations and Safety Testing Techniques
What do you hope for people to learn or gain from your conference this year?
Kennedy: CannMed 2018 provides a world-class education for cannabis industry enthusiasts, medical professionals, and scientists to learn of the latest breakthroughs in research and development of this amazing plant. Whether you're treating patients for pain, interested in developing new products, or learning about the latest scientific discoveries, there is a place for everyone at CannMed 2018 to advance the movement together.
We expect attendees will leave CannMed 2018 armed with valuable knowledge about the latest advancements in medical cannabis research, clinical applications, breeding and cultivation techniques, testing methods, and product development.
McKernan: For CannMed 2018, we have teamed with Cannabis Expertise to offer an full-day continuing medical education (CME) workshop for healthcare providers where they can earn up to 8 credits. The course will be taught by Dr. Dustin Sulak, Dr. Ethan Russo, and others. This is a great opportunity for medical providers to get an education on cannabis medicine and the ECS, which they do not get in medical school. We need more certified cannabis physicians.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about this year’s conference?
McKernan: Cryptocurrencies and blockchains are earth shattering inventions. We need to understand how these inventions will integrate into seed-to-sale tracking, initial coin offering (ICO) funding, research funding, building a distributed consensus on cannabis genomics, solving the banking crisis in cannabis, and potentially even inverting the entire peer-review system into a more transparent and less retraction prone system.
Kennedy: At CannMed Events, we take our speaker selection process very seriously. All of our invited presenters, abstract presenters, poster presenters, and panel moderators were approved by our advisory board based on their topics’ scientific merit and originality. Presentations that serve only to promote products or companies have no place at CannMed Events. It is because of these high standards and approval process that we truly believe the education platform at CannMed 2018 features the greatest minds in cannabis research.