While searching for new ways to increase yield, a research laboratory in New Mexico that focuses on hemp and cannabis came up with what they called “a happy byproduct” — water-soluble cannabinoids for food, beverages, and nutraceuticals that can be produced at commercial scale.
The company, Trait Biosciences in Los Alamos, had nearly 50 research scientists working for two years to make good cannabis even better when they came up with the unexpected — a clear liquid (or powder) that can instantly dissolve in water for cannabinoid-infused beverages, edibles, nutraceuticals, and other products.
It’s the first successful stable genetic transformation of the cannabis sativa (hemp) plant and the first time a hemp plant has been stably transformed and successfully grown from roots and stems that will pave the way for commercialization. It’s also an important advance for the cannabis industry as Canada gets ready to legalize edibles and concentrates federally and demand for these products in the US continues to grow.
“Trait Distilled can be used everywhere,” says Ronan Levy, Trait’s chief strategy officer. “The biggest focus has been on cannabis beverages and edibles, but pharmaceutical and wellness products fit in here… anything that has higher bioavailability,
but no taste profile.”
Here’s the roadmap. Dr. Richard Sayre, Trait’s chief science officer, was chasing ways to increase cannabinoid yield in cannabis and hemp when two paths converged. “One of the reasons for limited plant yield is that cannabinoids, in a sense, are toxic to the plant, so it only produces them on the bud surface before exporting them to the trichomes for storage,” says Levy.
Then the light went on. “Dr. Sayre understood that the natural process of glycosylation that detoxifies things could also be used to detoxify cannabinoid creation in plants and thereby significantly increase yield in hemp and cannabis.”
Trait researchers went to work on creating plants that produced glycosylated cannabinoids naturally and throughout the plant. The company spent 18 months refining the process of taking conventional extracts from natural plants, then utilizing their cells to do the actual glycosylation process after traditional extraction.
“You attach a sugar molecule to cannabinoids and convert them to water-soluble,” says Levy, making the process sound simple.
“Previous fat-soluble cannabinoids didn’t mix well in water for beverages and edibles — witness your salad dressings — but when you glycosylinate it, it mixes perfectly into a beverage that is tasteless, colorless, odorless, and shelf-stable, and you can’t say that about cannabinoids, generally speaking.”
He adds that from Trait’s perspective, it’s important to bring high science to impact the growth of the cannabis industry to ensure potential therapeutic and health benefits in cannabinoids are made available to a larger market. One of the main concerns dealt with negative associations involving nanotechnology where nanoemulsions or nanoencapsulation were being used to coat cannabinoids to get around the separation issue.
“But nanoparticles are so small, they actually create a whole bunch of potential health risks by interfering with your DNA, crossing the blood-brain barrier, causing immune system responses, and accumulating in your body,” says Levy. “Because of the risks, a lot of food companies are moving away from the use of nanoparticles in their product because it creates liability for them. When you’re looking at people using CBD for wellness or THC for recreation, ingesting nanotechnology means taking unnecessary risks with your health. That’s why our Trait Distilled process is so exciting. Instead of using nanotechnology, we’re using a natural process your body does anyway with cannabinoids.”
In late June, Trait received patent protection over all key technological components for the company’s Distilled and Amplified technologies from the US Patents and Trademarks Office.
Asked if this development was kind of like a kick in the seat of the pants for the industry at large, Levy says he thinks so. “Absolutely. We’re setting the standard in terms of both innovation and prudent science, doing incredible stuff and building a Center of Research Excellence for cannabis, hemp, and cannabinoids. All our technology gets put through rigorous trials and we know it’s perfectly safe with no long-term harmful effects before any human ingests it.”
In addition to the ability of being able to produce water-soluble cannabinoids with far greater bioavailability and onset time compared to fat-soluble cannabinoids, plants grown by the company are also expected to generate cannabinoid yields two to 10 times higher than conventional plants.
“In the future, we’ll continue to engage the biggest challenge facing the industry and that is producing enough cannabinoids to supply the industry,” says Levy. “And going forward, we’ll be working on production of minor cannabinoids at scale so they can be used in formulations for pharmaceutical products. While everyone talks about THC and CBD, there are well over 100 identified cannabinoids and each may have its own therapeutic application as a water-soluble product easier to formulate into pharmaceutical products.”
Because Trait Biosciences is a research and development company that comes up with the new ideas, “When it comes to producing Trait Distilled at scale, we will be partnering with an organization that can do fermentation at mass scale instead of us trying to do it in-house,” says Levy.
Trait Distilled products reached market in late 2019.