Turning High-Tech Into ‘High’ Tech: Behind Israel’s Blooming Medical Cannabis Industry
Some of the recent studies coming out of Israel show that marijuana can heal bone fractures; is able to relieve the pain associated with Parkinson’s disease; and that small quantities of cannabis can prevent brain damage, and even halt the spread of cancer.
But cannabis is not only the subject of research and clinical trials in Israel, it’s also the focus of a host of startup entrepreneurs working to apply the benefits of marijuana to the commercial world. Large companies are also jumping on the green bandwagon: Israeli pharma giant Teva recently said it would market Syqe, a medical marijuana inhaler developed in Israel. Two other Israeli companies have already developed marijuana tablets.
Israel is one of the first modern nations to investigate the medical benefits of marijuana. The local founding father of cannabis research, Prof. Raphael Mechoulam of the Hebrew University, has been studying the plant since the 1960s. Over the past decades, other researchers have joined him to explore the possible positive impact of cannabis on bones, our digestive system, and even our brain.
Sensing the commercial value of marijuana, a host of Israeli startups and companies – backed by one incubator and a couple of venture capital firms – have started to commercialize some of the researchers’ findings on the benefits of hemp, and now there are some 70 companies in the field, industry veteran Dr. Tamir Gedo, CEO of Israel’s BOL Pharma, tells NoCamels. In recent years, his company has conducted clinical trials with cannabis, showing positive results on leukemia, brain cancer (Glioblastoma, or GBM), psoriasis, fibromyalgia, and even autism, Gedo says.
Israeli cannabis startups – albeit growing and testing crops locally – are looking to the US for mass marketing, and not only to Colorado, where recreational use of marijuana first became legal. With California, Maine, Nevada and Massachusetts joining suit (Arkansas, Florida and North Dakota passed medical pot measures on Nov. 8), Israeli startups could soon tap into a huge market.
Greater access to cannabis treatments
The newest invention – a marijuana tablet – is being developed by two local companies. Earlier this month, Israeli pharma company Therapix Biosciences, which develops cannabinoid-based drugs, completed the development phase of a unique formulation of a tablet for sublingual administration. The tablet is expected to be used in clinical trials for the treatment of impairments in cognitive functioning, including Alzheimer’s disease. Another Israeli company, OWC Pharmaceutical Research Corp., announced a similar tablet back in October.
According to Ziv Turner, CEO of OWC, “there’s a substantial number of eligible patients who are uncomfortable smoking cannabis for medical purposes, leaving a large segment of the patient population without real access to treatment. We believe our tablet is a preferable administrative method for those, and many other patients, and will make a real difference in the way cannabis is administered.”
Another way to administer cannabis is through an inhaler. Israeli startup Syqe Medical has created an innovative, 3D-printed hand-held cannabis inhaler, which vaporizes tiny granules of cannabis in small doses. Those provide the relieving effects of marijuana, without having the mind-altering side effects that usually come with it. Earlier this year, giant cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris invested $20 million in Syqe Medical.
Weeding out the bad taste
To tap into yet another target population; those who like to smoke, but don’t like the taste of weed, Israeli cannabis startup Eybna, has developed natural, terpene-based cannabis flavors with aromatic fragrances.
Then there are those who would like to grow their weed themselves. Anticipating yet another untapped market, Israeli startup Leaf provides a do-it-yourself kit for patients who use medical marijuana, so they can grow and crop their weed themselves – without soil.
Budding Israeli startups in the field of medical marijuana can get guidance and funding from local startup incubator iCAN- Israel Cannabis, which focuses on cannabis-related technologies with commercialization potential. According to Saul Kaye, founder and CEO of iCAN, the incubator enables “the most promising startups and innovators in Israel and abroad to create world-class products for the global cannabis economy.”
Different strains treat different conditions
Israel pioneered marijuana research in 1964, when Mechoulam discovered Tetrahydrocannabinol, also known as THC, one of 70 cannabinoids (the active molecules in cannabis). THC is responsible for the ‘high’ feeling, while CBD is marijuana’s non-psychoactive component, which has been proven to have several health benefits. Cannabinoids are generally used to reduce pain, stress, as well as to increase appetite, among other uses.
Today, Israeli researchers lead the scientific world in cannabinoid research, inventing new methods of mapping the cannabis genome, while discovering new medical uses for the plant.
As experts increasingly consider marijuana to be a genetically modified organism (GMO) – produced in greenhouse-laboratories to treat specific conditions – Israeli scientists are using genetic markers to control molecule counts, and modify the plant, so it can better treat certain symptoms, thus helping millions of patients worldwide.
Israeli startup BreedIT, for example, is combining the power of science and technology with the medical power of cannabis, helping growers breed biogenetically engineered marijuana. Collaborating with doctors and researchers from the Hebrew University and the Weizmann Institute of Science, BreedIT manufactures agrobreeding systems for growers.
Agrobreeding is a computer-controlled breeding method that genetically modifies plants, and creates marijuana strains. This selective breeding method uses big-data computers and analysis techniques that provide growers and researchers with insightful plant information, including the amounts of active THC and CBD in marijuana.
One of the Israeli strains of marijuana is Avidekel, a non-psychoactive CBD strain for treatment of epilepsy grown by Tikun Olam, which means “heal the world” in Hebrew.
So far, eight farms in Israel are licensed to grow marijuana for medical uses, and certain doctors are allowed to prescribe medical marijuana, which will soon be sold in pharmacies across Israel.
And, if the Israeli government approves exporting medical marijuana grown in Israel (only medical devices can be exported as of now), Israeli farmers are looking at $250-$300 million in revenues a year, according to Israel’s Ministry of Finance.
Gedo believes the potential is much bigger. “By federal law, American companies and hospitals cannot perform clinical trials involving cannabis on human beings, but they can and do come to Israel generating dozens of groundbreaking studies based on cannabinoids,” he says, stating that BOL Pharma already works with half a dozen such companies. “This research will generate new cannabinoid based platforms which will form the basis of new drugs that will be used by US pharmaceutical companies in the future.”
According to Gedo, “Israel’s medical cannabis future lies in research and technology. That’s our strength. Bringing more international companies to Israel can generate more revenues than was previously estimated.”
A $6.7 billion industry
The legal cannabis market tops $6.7 billion in the US; medical marijuana is prescribed in the US for cancer, AIDS, asthma and glaucoma, as well as an antidepressant and an appetite stimulant. Cannabis is also used as an anti-convulsing agent, with many clinical studies still ongoing.
In the US, Israel and elsewhere in the world, the use of medical marijuana is expected to expand in the next decade, thanks to new growing methods and increasing government support. And, since there are so many cannabinoids to study, researchers hope to reveal additional uses for marijuana in years to come.