In a discreet laboratory on a university campus in Rio de Janeiro, Brazilian molecular biologist Rodrigo MouraNeto experiments with an ordinary-looking plant that holds a secret. The fast-growing species “Tremamicranthablume” is native to the Americas, where it is widespread and often considered a weed.
But MouraNeto recently discovered that its fruits and flowers contain one of the chemicals in marijuana: cannabidiol, or CBD, which has shown promise as a treatment for conditions including epilepsy, autism, anxiety and chronic pain. The researcher also found that the plant does not contain the psychoactive compound of marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. That opens up the possibility of a revolution: having a new and abundant source of CBD, without the complications of resorting to cannabis, which is illegal in many countries.
The discovery made something of an academic star out of MouraNeto, an affable, gray-haired 66-year-old whose schedule was filled with meetings with patent experts and companies eager to exploit the multibillion-dollar market for CBD. “It was a great luck to find a plant (with CBD but) without THC, because that avoids the whole problem of psychotropic substances,” says MouraNeto, who has spent most of the last 5 decades doing research in this small laboratory at the University. “The potential is huge”, he told AFP.
His 10-member team recently won a public grant of 500,000 reais (about US$104,000) to expand their project, which will now identify the best methods for extracting CBD from “Trema” and study its effectiveness as a medical marijuana substitute.
“A magic plant”
Many of the medicinal uses of CBD are still under investigation. The compound is controversial even in Brazil, where many patients have gone to court to be able to use it or have paid high prices for its importation.
The cultivation of medical marijuana is illegal in the South American giant, although Congress is processing a project that could change the situation. Demand for CBD is booming around the world – that market reached almost US$5 billion by 2022. And it is projected to grow above US$47 billion by 2028, driven primarily by health and wellness purposes.
Interest in MouraNeto’s research has been “enormous”, says Rosane Silva, director of his lab, standing in a hallway packed with students and researchers. “A lot of companies are calling looking to collaborate” on an eventual CBD medicine, says Silva, standing next to the “magic plant”. A member of the Cannabaceae family, like cannabis, “Trema” can grow into a tree up to 20 meters tall.
MouraNeto addresses the possibility of patenting any innovation to extract CBD from its tiny fruits and flowers, but adds that he will not do it with the plant itself, because he wants the scientific community to be able to investigate it. “If I had dreamed of being a billionaire, I wouldn’t have become a teacher”, he says.
From the lab to the market?
Forensic geneticist, MouraNeto began studying CBD to collaborate with the police: he analyzed the DNA of seized marijuana in order to trace its origin. When he came across a study that identified the presence of CBD in a plant in Thailand, also from the Cannabaceae family, he had the idea to look for it in the “Trema”.
As he says, turning his discovery –not yet published in a scientific journal– into a commercial medicine could take 5 to 10 years. Although he is aware that the CBD of the “Trema” might also not work as well, or at all, as that of cannabis, clarifies MouraNeto. On the other hand, he rules out smoking the plant for a high. “That will not do any good”, he laughs.