In our latest podcast I talked about Jay Keasling’s work in the cannabis industry, including all the companies he’s founded and how they’re currently involved in the industry to some degree. The podcast summarized previous articles I’d written on the topic. Cannabis isn’t the first industry Keasling has tried to make biosynthesis ‘work’ in. His first attempt was to produce a cheap and reliable source of artemisinin, an anti-malarial drug. This is how that turned out in his own words:
“The synthetic-biology route promised to end this rollercoaster by providing a stable and reliable source of artemisinin. Sanofi developed the capacity to produce almost 60 tonnes of the chemical per year — about one-third of global need — and the company hoped to supply other ACT manufacturers with the raw materials.
“In reality, that has not happened,” says Yadav. Sanofi has so far used its SSA to make more than 39 million treatments of its own version of ACT — representing about 10% of global ACT demand — but has not sold the chemical to other drugmakers.
That is partly because of a glut in agricultural artemisinin. For the past two years, the naturally derived chemical has sold for less than $250 per kilogram — below Sanofi’s ‘no profit–no loss’ margin of around $350–400 per kilogram. “If that price is already very low and there’s a bumper crop, there’s no reason to fire up a fermenter,” says Jay Keasling of the University of California, Berkeley, who led the team that first developed the yeast strain.”
The reality was once the demand was known and breeders started breeding the artemisia plant for artemisinin production the price of artemisinin plummeted. The artemisia plant has a 18 month growth cycle and only produces <1% artemisinin by leaf dry weight, over time breeders have been able to bump that up to a couple of percent. When you compare that to cannabis, which has a ~4 month grow cycle and can push >30% total cannabinoids by dry flower weight, you start to wonder why Keisling and all three of the companies he founded are interested in competing with the cannabis plant. I’ve heard the argument that biosynthesis could produce the minor cannabinoids cheaper than the plant, unfortunately we’ve already seen plants capable of producing >10% of many of the ‘minor cannabinoids’. Once breeders have a regulated system they can work within and time, we’ll see more plants capable of producing more of these ‘minor cannabinoids’, assuming the demand is there.
Despite the challenges I’ve already laid out with engineering a totally novel pathway to produce cannabinoids to circumvent existing patents and Keisling’s own lessons learned from artemisinin, his companies keep marching forward. Even if he had access to the patents covering the cannabinoid biosynthetic pathway in cannabis, competing with a plant much more capable than the artemisia plant at producing these desirable drugs seems foolhardy at best.