Cannabis research and genetic improvements are gathering pace thanks to new genomic technologies, combined with fewer restrictive laws governing cultivation, research and use of the plant, according to a La Trobe University study.
In their paper published in New Phytologist, researchers from the La Trobe Institute of Agriculture and Food, home for the Australian Research Council Industrial Transformation Research Hub for Medicinal Agriculture (ARC MedAg Hub), reviewed international studies of cannabis genomics and identified significant gaps in the research.
Lead researcher Associate Professor Mathew Lewsey said cannabis is one of the oldest cultivated plants believed to have unique medicinal properties, but for decades research into identifying those properties had been restricted by anti-drug laws.
"These rules have meant that while our understanding of the basic biology and properties of other crop species has advanced through the use of genomics for example, our knowledge of cannabis has lagged," Lewsey, who is Deputy Director of the ARC MedAg Hub, said.
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"We already know about some of the medicinal properties derived from cannabis, such as its ability to relieve nausea caused by some anti-cancer treatments, act as an anti-inflammatory agent, to alleviate pain in palliative care patients, and reduce seizures in children with some forms of drug-resistant epilepsy. But there are potentially many more untapped benefits of this fascinating plant."
The paper also found: Illegal cultivation of cannabis had restricted the genetic potential of existing cultivars; genomics-assisted breeding would increase the efficiency and precision of cannabis crop improvement; and improving our limited understanding of how cannabis genomes differ between cultivars could make a major contribution to the growing medicinal cannabis industry.
Co-author and Director of the ARC MedAg Hub, Professor Tony Bacic, said humans had used cannabis for a fibre, medicine or drug since about 8000 BCE but it was only relatively recently that cannabis had emerged as a high-value and clinically efficacious crop.
"There is ample anecdotal evidence and an increasing number of clinical trials about the benefits of cannabis, but there remain challenges around the production of high-quality plant-based therapeutic grade products and their provenance. Part of our focus at Hub is to dig deeper and provide scientific evidence and understanding to inform public policy and therapeutic use."
The $24 million La Trobe-led ARC MedAg Hub combines academic and industry research and expertise to drive better cultivation, breeding and manufacturing practises to support Australia's medicinal agriculture industry and ultimately improve health outcomes for patients. It was officially launched by Education Minister Dan Tehan in 2019.