Plant biochemist Dr. Itzhak Kurek is the chief executive and co-founder of Cannformatics, a San Francisco-based startup focused on scientifically matching dosage and cannabis strains for consumers. Kurek is a biotech leader with more than 25 years of experience who has conducted research at the Tel Aviv University, Technical University of Munich, John Innes Center Norwich UK, UC Davis and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories. To celebrate National Love a Tree Day — May 16 — Kurek shared with Marijuana.com a biochemist’s view of cannabis. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: How is cannabis classified? Is it a tree? A flowering plant?
A: [Cannabis is] actually a flowering plant. The plant in nature … one plant has male reproductive parts and the other has the female reproductive parts, what we call dioecious. It’s been domesticated for about 12,000 years. They started using it in a religious way, in ceremonies. In China, it dates back to 2700 B.C. It’s the oldest record of medical cannabis.
Q: Are there any characteristics that make cannabis unique as a plant? From a plant biochemist’s perspective, what makes cannabis interesting to study?
A: I would say, in one word, it’s the robustness of this plant. For one, it survived that many years. It has an unusually broad geographical and ecological range. From sea level to over 3,000 meters elevation. Part of the robustness is the uniqueness of the cannabinoids. Plants cannot walk away from danger. Wherever they grow, that’s where they are. They have to carry with them everything in their genetic code. Cannabis has more genetics and promiscuity than other plants.
[Also] CBD has an anti-insecticidal effect in plants. … CBD and THC are not designed to help people; they are designed to help in the plant’s protection. THC is a phytocannabinoid. It helps the plant protect itself against light. That’s why cannabis is rich with all those molecules, it needs to carry all those molecules for different environments.
[Cannabis is] a plant that adapts very well to different environments. It’s exactly the opposite of dinosaurs.
Q: How much genetic variation is there between different strains of cannabis?
A: We don’t know, but it’s a lot. The way we look at genetics, we sequence the genes. We [did not sequence enough so we]don’t really know. We’re just at the tip of the iceberg. Certain large manufacturers, there are very well defined strains they’re using.
When we talk about marijuana, we have a lot of cultivators. In California, we have maybe 3,000 strains. That’s a lot of strains [and]a lot of producers making vegetative grow[th]. It doesn’t come to seed. We don’t have access to sequence those [plants]. It’s how much variation exists. It’s almost an art, and everyone has their own trade secrets. And they’re not going to allow anyone to sequence it. But it’s a lot, just because of the nature of the plant. The scientific community is still very much limited because of the availability of strains.
Q: With the legalization of recreational cannabis in nine states and Washington D.C., more people are cultivating marijuana and creating new strains. Have you seen any interesting genetic variations resulting from this experimentation?
A: Me, as a scientist, I always welcome diversity. I think it’s very difficult right now to also say what is an interesting plant, because right now the response from most people to a strain is a self-assessment. There is no scientific assessment to say medically, “This is a great strain for pain.” Cannabis is the plant of 1,001 molecules. I think we know now 480 molecules. I describe cannabis as bag with different active compounds.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about the work you’re doing at Cannaformatics? What physiological differences do people have that could alter the way their body reacts to different strains of cannabis?
A: We like to say we’re tailoring strain and dosage to the individual. The goal is to increase effectiveness while minimizing undesirable effects. It’s like my mom in Israel tells her friends with neuropathy. She takes a strain and she gets a headache. She probably has the wrong strain. Factors that are affecting: We know gender is affecting. It’s really about the metabolism. Age is affecting. Medical conditions obviously affect consumption and the type of strain we need. Medication, diet and obviously cannabis consumption, a first time user versus a daily user. The way we look at it, we use saliva as a selfie of the patient’s physiology. The cannabinoid receptors are in the salivary gland. “Cottonmouth” is one of the examples.
We’re developing this proprietary recommendation engine for the specific physiological need of the individual. It’s the health, it’s the demographic, the type of diet we eat, and habit. Are we only drinking coffee or swimming 10 miles in the morning? We take the saliva and look at the biomarkers. Our ultimate goal is to individualize medical cannabis.
This post has been updated to clarify Dr. Kurek’s credentials and background and add details for clarity.