The world’s most used drug was developed from a plant over a hundred years ago. Acetylsalicylic acid, or aspirin, is a synthetic derivative of the natural substance salicylic acid, which is an extract from the bark of the white willow tree.
Salicylic acid has been used to treat inflammation, fevers, and headaches for over 2400 years. In 1853, chemist Charles Frederic Gerhardt created acetylsalicylic acid. By 1899, Bayer was selling aspirin to the world. This is just one example of a synthetic compound that caused an advance in the medical world.
Hemp is thought to be one of the world’s oldest industrial crops since it dates back more than 10,000 years. Besides being used for rope, cloth, and building materials, the seeds and oil were used as a food in China about 8000 years ago. The first documented use of medical cannabis was roughly 4750 years ago.
Currently, the prohibition of cannabis is dissolving throughout the world and the cannabis plant is being viewed as a medical wonder. Laboratory and clinical research run by biotechs and pharmaceutical companies is focusing on new cannabis products that will increase their market holdings. Each company is searching for the next “aspirin,”—or the next big medicine. These companies also believe that the key to a new class of drugs will be found in synthetic cannabis.
Dr. Joseph Tucker, an experienced executive and expert in synthetic active pharmaceutical ingredients, co-founded Willow Bioscience. The company’s mission is to become the largest manufacturer of biosynthetically-produced cannabinoids.
“In addition to consistency and reproducibility, synthetic cannabis can be a much more cost-effective process than plant-based extraction or chemical synthesis, the only option that companies have today,” said Tucker. “Based on our estimates, biosynthetic production is about 90% faster and cheaper than plant-based extraction. We are of the opinion that synthetic processes will ultimately re-shape how cannabinoids are produced and open new gateways to advanced pharmaceutical opportunities to help people in medical need.
“There is a growing library of evidence as to the effectiveness of cannabinoids. This will provide tailwinds for drug companies to push hard to utilize cannabinoids in new therapeutics, which should have us well-positioned to fill future demand.”
There are more than 300 cannabidiol- (CBD) and other cannabinoid-based treatments currently in human trials. These treatments being tested are for conditions such as PTSD, epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease, chronic pain, schizophrenia, and others. Because the cannabidiols are sourced from traditional production methods, the cost is high for these trials. Synthesis is viewed as an economically viable production method and may displace the more expensive products.
In 1998, Marinol (dronabinol), a synthetic pill based on tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), was approved for treating nausea and vomiting in cancer patients and anorexia in AIDS patients. This market proved to be around $150 million in 2016.
Epidiolex, a CBD drug of GW Pharma, was approved in 2018 by the FDA for treating two rare forms of childhood epilepsy. The market forecast projects sales to top $1 billion in 2021.
The US cannabinoid-based pharmaceuticals market is projected to grow to $50 billion annually by 2029. US retail sales of CBD is expected to reach $16 billion by 2025. Willow Biosciences plans to become the leading player in both markets. By working in collaboration with Noramco, the largest supplier of controlled substance APIs in the US, they plan to develop a yeast-based biosynthesis method for the production of CBD.