As the cannabis-infused beverage market continues to take shape, many companies are turning to nanotechnology to more easily dissolve fat-soluble cannabinoids into liquids. Trait Biosciences, however, is looking for another solution, developing technology that can create water-soluble cannabinoids that would mix easily into drinks.
“I’m one of the believers … that the biggest opportunity in cannabis is to displace alcohol, but to provide cannabis consumption in a way that our entire society is used to, which is sitting down with a bottle or a glass and drinking and socializing,” says Ronan Levy, chief strategy officer of the emerging cannabis biotech company. “If you do that with cannabis and not have hangovers and not have those terrible health effects, … it’s going to be a natural displacement for alcohol.”
Here, Levy discusses Trait’s technology, which could change the way the cannabis industry approaches cannabinoid-infused beverages.
Cannabis Business Times: Can you provide some background on the technology that Trait has been developing?
Ronan Levy: [One of our technologies] was created when our team realized that the synthesis process of cannabinoids in the plant is actually toxic to the plant because cannabinoids, from an evolutionary perspective, are actually a plant defense mechanism. They’re designed to prevent predators from eating the cannabis or hemp plant. Also, the synthesis process of creating cannabinoids creates a hydrogen peroxide molecule, which is toxic to all earth-based organisms. So, what the plant did, from an evolutionary perspective, is it created a system where the cannabinoids are synthesized in the buds of the plant—at the surface level of the bud—not deeper in the plant.
In nature, including in our human bodies, one way that organisms detoxify molecules is by attaching a sugar molecule to it. So, if you were to consume a cannabis edible, you’d eat it, it would work its way through your system, and at a certain point, your metabolism would attach a sugar molecule to it. That attachment of the sugar molecule changes the cannabinoid—which is naturally fat soluble, not water soluble—and makes the cannabinoid water soluble.
[Chief Scientist] Dr. [Richard] Sayre realized that if you can get the plant to glycosylate the cannabinoids—meaning attach that sugar molecule to the cannabinoid in the plant and find a way to address the hydrogen peroxide molecule in the plant—you can actually get around that limitation that forces the plant to grow cannabinoids in the bud and on the surface of the bud. He’s done work at the cellular level of the plant, and we’ve created plants that create glycosylated cannabinoids—water-soluble cannabinoids. And because they’re water soluble and they’re synthesis processed, they’re not toxic to the plants, which means you can grow the cannabinoids or synthesize the cannabinoids in every single cell of the plant, not just in the bud. You can do it in the leaf, in the stock, in the stem [and] in the roots. It significantly increases the yield of cannabinoids coming out of any given plant because, at peak flowering of the plant, the buds count for 10 percent of the biomass. We call [that technology] Trait Amplified or Trait Super Producers.
[Another] technology is [called] Trait Distilled, a water-soluble conversion process. That same process that we’ve managed to get the plant to do so we can grow cannabinoids in every single cell of the plant [can also be done] outside of the plant and with existing extracted oils. So, if you get cannabis oil from a dispensary, they come as oils because cannabinoids are naturally fat soluble, and that means they won’t dissolve into water, but they’ll dissolve into fats. What we can do is basically, through the same process of glycosylating, we can take those existing extracted oils, put them into a fermenter exactly like how beer is made, and either using yeast or tobacco cells—which are naturally inclined to try to detoxify them—they will actually glycosylate the cannabinoids. They’ll attach that sugar molecule to the cannabinoids, which changes those cannabinoids from being fat soluble to water soluble. So, all of a sudden, we have technology that can take any cannabis oil and can convert that into a water-soluble cannabis product.
CBT: How can Trait Distilled technology be applied to beverages?
RL: We’ve all had salad dressing that when you try to mix oil and water, it separates. So, when you’re trying to mix cannabinoids into fruit juice, water [or] whatever the case may be, there’s a natural inclination for water and cannabinoids to separate. When you make them water soluble, like alcohol is water soluble, those cannabinoids will distribute to the entire beverage or edible that you’re trying to create, and you’re not going to have this separation issue. That’s our water-soluble conversion technology.
Right now, you can buy cannabis beverages in the States, and because the cannabinoids are fat soluble, you’re trying to mix oil into water, by and large. You’ll either shake the drink, or they’ll have it in crystalline forms, and it doesn’t make for a great beverage experience like when you think about vodka or cold beer that’s bubbling up. It’s just not an ideal, quality beverage experience when you have to shake it up. Looking at this from a recreational perspective—if you want people to adopt cannabis beverages in place of alcohol beverages—you have to offer a competitively quality experience.
Companies are using emulsions or nanoemulsions. Essentially, emulsifying the cannabinoids [coats] them in something that’s not as hydrophobic as the cannabinoids themselves, so it won’t separate as quickly, and you mix it in. The problem with emulsions [is] a lot of people refer to them as water soluble, but they’re not actually water soluble. They’re more like water compatible. They mix up nicely, but they’re not actually dissolved into the underlying water or juice, and over time, it’s going to separate like salad dressing.
The second limitation with emulsions is they tend to be cloudy. Mayonnaise is actually an emulsion. Imagine drinking a cloudy liquid. It’s just not a nice experience. And you still have the problem with all cannabis edibles and beverages that exists right now, which is late onset. When you sit down and have a glass of wine or drink a beer, you feel the effects virtually immediately because your body processes alcohol starting with your mouth, then your stomach, and in the small intestine, which is very early in the digestive tract. With fat-soluble cannabinoids—whether emulsified or otherwise—they’re essentially a fat, [and] your body metabolizes them much lower in your digestive system, in the large intestine, and that’s why you get that delayed effect.
People have turned to nanotechnologies or nanoemulsions, which address two of the limitations of emulsions—they’re even less hydrophobic [and] can lead to an almost clear beverage because the emulsifier is smaller. But it doesn’t change the fundamental nature that you’re still dealing with a fat-soluble cannabinoid, so it still has to travel through your whole digestive tract, through your large intestine, so it still leads to that delayed onset experience.
Our technology creates water-soluble cannabinoids, so you don’t have to emulsify the cannabinoids. You don’t have to coat them in anything. When you add them to a liquid like a water or a juice, they’re naturally, through osmosis, going to spread uniformly throughout the entire drink. So, you don’t have any concerns about separation because, like alcohol, they are water soluble. You’re not going to have any cloudiness issues. And then there’s the other advantage, which is because they are water soluble, the onset time should be much shorter. So, they don’t have to travel to your large intestine to be absorbed. They will be absorbed in your small intestine, which is where most alcohol gets absorbed, as well.
Our technology [also] avoids all of the concerns about nanotechnology. The thing with nanotechnology is you’re using particles less than 100 nanometers in size to essentially emulsify the cannabinoid. But because they are so small, the interaction of particles and biological systems is not very well understood. For instance, nanoparticles are so small that they can actually cross the blood-brain barrier, which is cool if you’re using nanoparticles to deliver, say, cancer medication to a brain tumor and can’t otherwise access the brain tumor. It makes sense to use nanoparticles to deliver the active pharmaceutical ingredient. But when you’re using nanoparticles primarily for a recreational product, like cannabis beverages, there are a lot of questions about the health consequences of it.
Trait Biosciences' facility. Photo courtesy of Trait Biosciences.
CBT: Can you elaborate on Trait’s in-house research process? Is the company currently conducting trials?
RL: We are conducting trials. We’re just in the process of getting our first trial finalized. The first one is going to take place in Israel with partners over there. Because we know glycosylated cannabinoids are naturally occurring in the body, the risk of there being any safety issues with them is extremely low, and so with our Israeli partners, they felt comfortable enough to move directly to human trials and there’s no need for animal trials. We hope to get the results from that in six months.
There are a lot of people working on similar or competitive technologies to us who are already putting it into products. Many of the beverages being sold in the U.S. using nanotechnologies, they didn’t go through clinical trials to make sure it’s safe. They just put it into the market because it’s the Wild West. As a core business principle, we don’t do that. We’re going to put it through clinical trials to make sure it’s safe, but also to establish the early onset time in a clinical setting, as well as to establish that it has the psychoactive effect as non-glycosylated cannabinoids.
CBT: What is your overall outlook for the cannabis-infused beverage market? What trends do you think will emerge as the market matures?
RL: Someone described it to me the other day, and I think it was appropriate. The guy I was speaking to was instrumental in developing gluten-free foods in Canada, and he said version one gluten-free foods, they were by and large, pretty bad. They didn’t taste good, they had terrible texture, but if you had Celiac’ s Disease, it gave you an option. But with time, technology, investment and more people flooding into the market of gluten-free foods, the quality of gluten-free foods has increased substantially and now the gluten-free breads are comparable with other breads.
The cannabis industry is the same way. There are drinks out there that people are consuming because they like the format, but they don’t taste very good, they have an unpredictable effect, and I think the first line of products coming out are probably going to be bad to OK. But with time, investment and technologies that address a lot of the fundamental issues around the existing technologies that make mediocre drinks, you’re going to see the quality of beverages improve.
My instinct from a market perspective is people who are just trying to throw cannabinoids into existing products like the alcohol-less wine and add cannabinoids instead, I don’t think that’s the direction. I think there’s going to be a unique category of cannabis beverages that are distinct from the existing categories of alcohol beverages, such that you have wine, vodka, tequila and then there’s going to be a category of cannabis beverages that aren’t exactly any of those. I think it’s going to be its own category, like tequila is different than vodka.
CBT: What’s next for Trait Biosciences? Will you start looking for partners to bring your technology to market after the clinical trials are over?
RL: Right now, we’re working on scale of technology, at least for the Trait Distilled technology—the water-soluble conversion—so we can produce it in higher quantities. We’re in active talks with a number of different players, from beverage makers to edible makers to alcohol companies. Everyone is very intrigued by the technology that we have, and we’ve been very proactive in developing a robust IP portfolio around it, so we think even if people want to try to do what we’re doing, we’ll have patents that will enable us to block them from doing that. That’s probably still a few months away before we can actively be working on the formulation of products, but there is a lot of interest with a lot of partners.
We’re likely to do another financing. We completed financing in late July, and we are going to continue to grow, to invest in our facility [and] to grow our team. It’s about building the team and advancing the science.