Things are moving fast in the international pharmaceutical industry’s push to turn the chemicals behind the remarkable properties of the cannabis plant into trademarked products. Unsurprisingly, a special emphasis is on cannabidiol, or CBD—a compound with wide-ranging medical potentials still being uncovered. This May alone, several patents and intellectual property agreements were sought or secured for CBD’s applications.
The Race for Cannabis Patents Heats Up
First, Peak Health of San Francisco announced it had filed a patent application for testing the “bioactivity” of the CBD molecule. According to the company’s press release, “bioactivity” is the complex interplay between a drug and its corresponding receptor in the human body, enabling its ability to produce a biological response. This testing method could be key in the development of effective drug products from CBD.
“All research papers published about CBD, from plant sources, have not accounted for variations in their bioactivity,” said Dr. Sharma Kristipati, director of the company’s new lab to measure CBD bioactivity.
Next up was Kalytera Therapeutics of Marin County, which was issued a U.S. patent for the use of CBD for the prevention and treatment of “graft versus host disease” (GVHD), a complication that can follow transplants of tissue from a donor to a patient.
“We now have very strong intellectual property protection that will provide us with market exclusivity for the use of CBD in GVHD through early 2034,” said Kalytera CEO Robert Farrell in the press release.
Callitas Therapeutics of Vancouver, meanwhile, announced an “intellectual property agreement” for development of CannaMint Strips, a method for oral delivery of cannabinoids. An intellectual property agreement is a contract between a business and its partners in the development of a product that is still patent-pending, recognizing the company’s claim to the product.
“Our patented and patent-pending technologies have the potential to be game-changers as delivery mechanisms for CBD and THC,” said Callitas CEO James Thompson in a press release.
Then, there are licenses to develop a patent held by another entity. Kannalife Sciences of Pennsylvania boasted in a press release that it currently holds two licenses with the National Institutes of Health for the commercialization of US Patent #6630507, for “Cannabinoids as Antioxidants and Neuroprotectants.” Specifically, the firm will research the efficacy of CBD in combating hepatic encephalopathy, which is the decline of brain function due to the failure of the liver to remove toxins from the blood. As Cannabis Now has reported, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the NIH parent agency, secured a patent in 2003 for the use of cannabinoids in these functions.
GW Pharmaceuticals, a UK-based multinational with globe-spanning ambitions, also has a portfolio of intellectual property related to the use of cannabinoids in the treatment of cancer, with several patents and pending applications in both the United States and Europe, according to New Cannabis Ventures.
The Potential Dangers of Cannabis Utility Patents
All this activity is setting off alarm bells in certain activist and scientific circles.
Mowgli Holmes, the chief scientific officer with Phylos Bioscience, an Oregon-based research outfit focused on cannabis genomics, in an interview with GQ last year warned that a firm called BioTech Institute LLC has started to register “utility patents” — that is, patents for a particular new product or application — on the cannabis plant.
“Utility patents are big. Scary,” Holmes said. “All of cannabis could be locked up. They could sue people for growing in their own backyards.”
BioTech Institute “barely exists,” the GQ report notes. “The company has no website, manufactures no products, and owns no pot shops. Public records for BioTech Institute turned up two Los Angeles addresses—a leafy office park an hour northwest of downtown and a suite in a Westside skyscraper—both of which led to lawyers who didn’t want to talk.”
Online records indicate that BioTech Institute does hold several patents, protecting “methods for the breeding, production, processing and use of specialty cannabis.”
Mowgli Holmes is currently involved in a Cannabis Evolution Project, which he described as developing “a genealogical map of the evolution of the plant” in a video interview with The Oregonian. A part of the aim here is to establish which strains and applications of the plant are part of an established intellectual commons, and therefore free from patenting.
Cannabis Patents for Traditional Knowledge?
Fears about corporate cannabis have been mounting among small growers and their activist allies since the big push for legalization began nearly a decade ago now.
The Press Trust of India notes a conference that just opened this week in New Delhi, to pressure for a re-opening of negotiations at the World Trade Organization on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs). India wants greater assurances that its ancient traditions of herbology in Ayurvedic medicine will be protected from “theft” by corporate patenting. The Convention on Biological Diversity protects this form of “traditional knowledge” — defined as collective intellectual property, which is passed on from generation to generation within a community. India’s government is particularly concerned to stop “reckless patenting” of traditional knowledge such as the healing properties of neem and turmeric.
Cannabis growers, advocates, patients and users will also have to grapple with this question: Which aspects of the plant’s applications qualify as “traditional knowledge,” and which are truly novel and therefore open to patenting? With the list of patents on cannabis applications growing fast, this issue demands attention from the cannabis community.
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