We know that cannabis affects different people in different ways, but without actually trying a variety of products, it’s impossible to know for sure how each one will affect a person.
However, there’s a new testing method that aims to skip the trial-and-error part of the process by using human genetic testing to determine a person’s best cannabis options. It analyzes an individual’s DNA for markers that indicate how they will metabolize the primary chemical compounds in cannabis, helping patients skip the sometimes lengthy and frustrating process of finding the right strains, methods and dosing for their individual needs.
But how does this test work, and how might it change the cannabis industry if it becomes more widely adopted? We spoke with some of the scientists and entrepreneurs behind this innovation to learn more details about this new technology.
DNA Testing For Cannabis Compatibility
Over the past decade, DNA tests have spiked not only in popularity, but also ease of access. While originally designed as a way to test for potential medical issues, new DNA tests now perform a variety of tasks. From tests like ancestry.com and 23andme that unearth your ancestry, to ones that inform you on how your DNA affects your health, diet, sleep or athletic ability, there seems to be no end to the answers a genetic test can provide. There are even tests claiming to predict your preferences for wine, so a similar test for cannabis isn’t a big leap.
The cannabis DNA test takes its inspiration from pharmacogenetics, which uses genetic markers to predict how a patient will metabolize and respond to a particular drug. For example, before prescribing a painkiller for a patient, a doctor might first test their DNA to learn if a particular type of painkiller is likely to work best. With this information, doctors can avoid giving patients drugs that might cause negative reactions and personalize a regimen that best fits the patient.
“Our success in pharmacogenetics and the lives that have been changed by that type of testing have inspired us to begin looking at genetic variants that affect cannabis response,” explains Dr. Charles Sailey, laboratory director at Molecular Testing Labs. “We know individuals whose lives have been profoundly impacted by cannabis and believe that the medicinal properties could be beneficial to many others who may be afraid to try it, based on a negative experience or no experience at all.”
Sailey and his team developed CannacoGenetics (CannaGx), the DNA test sold by MelixGx that explains how cannabis will be metabolized by different patients.
“A lot of people have misconceptions about marijuana and the effects of THC,” says MelixGx co-founder and COO Stu Campbell, “so we wanted to show them that you don’t have to be scared of it. We’ll tell you which product you should take and how your body breaks down and metabolizes cannabis based on your genetic makeup.”
How Does CannacoGenetics Work?
It all starts with a cheek swab.
I ordered a test from MelixGx and the process was very easy, much like any other home DNA testing kit. I followed the simple instructions included and used a cheek swab to collect genetic material from the inside of my mouth, then mailed the swabs in the return envelope provided and awaited the results. The scientists at MelixGx run the sample through the CannacoGenetics test, which analyzes small changes in single nucleotide polymorphisms (or SNPs — pronounced “snips”).
“These differences account for how different people process cannabis, and how cannabis reacts in the body once consumed,” explains Sailey. “Not all medications work the same for everyone, and some individuals experience extensive side effects. The same goes for cannabis.”
The test specifically looks at genetic markers linked to how a patient metabolizes the two primary chemical components of cannabis, THC and CBD. This helps them predict key factors in the medicinal cannabis experience, such as if THC is likely to cause the patient anxiety and paranoia, how effective the patient’s cannabinoid metabolism is, and what kind of dosing or ratio of CBD to THC is likely to be most effective.
However, a person’s reaction to cannabis is determined by more than just genetics, and the CannacoGenetics test doesn’t account for all of these factors yet — but it can definitely point patients in the right direction.
“Cannabis is a perfect example of personalized medicine,” Sailey explains. “Response to cannabis is complex and dependent on numerous factors. Genetics is only one piece of the puzzle, but it’s an important clue that should not be overlooked.”
The Future Of DNA Testing For Cannabis Type
CannacoGenetics is still in its early stages and may become even more accurate and comprehensive as we learn more about how DNA influences the ways people experience cannabis.
“We’ve got a couple of studies that are in the works … and we want to figure out whether these genetic profiles predict how well patients will do,” says Dr. David Casarett, section chief of palliative care at Duke University School of Medicine. Casarett is working with MelixGx to create clinical trials to study how well CannacoGenetics predicts patients’ response to different types of cannabis.
The team at MelixGx hopes to one day integrate branded cannabis products into the work it’s doing. Cannabis products are usually labeled by their likely effects or their chemical ingredients (i.e., high THC, low CBD), but eventually patients may look for products based on their own genetic description.
This type of innovation could provide a new marketing angle for growers and manufacturers. With limited sources of genetically branded products, patients who use these DNA tests may be more likely to purchase from sources that provide this kind of data with their products.
For now, CannacoGenetics is just a test that points patients in the right direction for information like dosing, strain and consumption method. But as accuracy increases and the tests become more widely adopted, there’s no telling how transformative and informative this new technology could be.