You may have heard of the cannabis compounds THC and CBD, but did you know there are more than 100 cannabinoids, many of which could have valuable therapeutic properties but are not abundantly available in plants?
It is one field where synthetic biology could play a crucial role, and the speed, efficiency, and reliability of high-throughput genome engineering of the Onyx™ platform is already enabling one business to embrace the opportunity.
Canadian biotech company Willow Biosciences is developing simple, robust processes for manufacturing rare cannabinoid compounds in high purity. Their first focus: cannabigerol, or CBG, also known as the ‘mother of cannabinoids.’ CBG is a precursor to the more well-known CBD and THC, located at a branch point in their biosynthetic pathway. It is believed to have similar antioxidizing and antiinflammatory properties to its kin, but it has not been well studied because it is difficult to isolate from plants.
Synthetic biology has enabled Willow researchers to build the pathway in yeast and stop it at CBG production, creating a more pure product that doesn’t need to be isolated, in a controlled environment, with a small physical, financial, and environmental footprint.
“Our goal has never been to replace the plant. What we want to do is bring high purity compounds for other applications where the plant simply is not applicable,” Chris Savile, Willow’s vice president of commercial operations, told Theral Timpson in this Mendelspod interview.
“Not only can you supply existing markets, you can enable new opportunities, say in the health and wellness and consumer packaged goods because of the purity of the material, the quality of it, and the cost at which you can do it,” Savile added.
Inscripta’s technology was vital to making the venture possible, he said. What once might have taken several years to accomplish — with 100 people and $100 million — can now be achieved in less than a month, with just a dozen people, at a tiny fraction of the cost.
Traditionally, Savile’s team would perform gene editing in a lab strain, and then have to apply those edits into more commercially relevant, stable strains.
“With Inscripta’s technology, we’re able to do that directly now, on that commercially relevant production strain,” Savile said.
With the edited strains now growing in the relevant context, any additional changes can be almost immediately implemented into production.
“So you shorten your development cycle time frame probably by about 40% using Inscripta’s approach and technology. It really is a great platform,” Savile said.
The platform should also enable the company to achieve greater scale. Already working at a pilot commercial scale using 500 liter fermentation vessels, Willow hopes to move up incrementally to 10,000 liter vessels, with products commercially available in 2021, Savile said.