Infectious disease researchers in Canada are developing a potential COVID-19 vaccine using cannabis-based compounds.

Scientists based at the University of Saskatchewan said utilizing a plant-based antigen could more easily enable mass production of an eventual vaccine than an animal-based antigen.

The company behind the research, Zyus Life Sciences, is collaborating with the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization – International Vaccine Center (VIDO-InterVac) in the quest for a coronavirus vaccine.

“We had a protein platform that we’ve been working on for a number of years prior to being in the cannabis space… I asked (our team) the question, ‘do you think that we could produce a vaccine of this type of protein using our other plant system?’ And they didn’t really see why not,” said Brent Zetl, CEO of Zyus, a medical cannabis company which received its license to develop marijuana-based medical treatments last year.

The researchers are working with two compounds: one derived from marijuana, the other from a different plant. These compounds are used to develop a protein that VIDO-InterVac identified as a possible antigen for a COVID-19 vaccine.

“The genetic information that VIDO-InterVac has developed to find the actual antigen that would work as a vaccine—that’s actually a strand of protein. So then we take that DNA and we actually then design it in a plant and then the plant itself can manufacture that same protein,” Zetl said

Zetl said using plant-based components confers several advantages compared to conventional methods using animal material.

“There’s a few benefits. One is, once you teach a plant to do something like this, a plant does it very efficiently and very effectively as it clones. It will clone that protein successfully year over year,” he said.

“The second is getting to scale. We want to make this onto a much larger scale much quicker once we teach a plant to do that… It can be a lot more rapid in its development so we can get a much quicker development of the product on a scale which ultimately may translate into a cheaper way of producing it in the future,” he added.

Furthermore, eschewing animal-based cells and proteins means vegetarians and vegans are more likely to take up an eventual vaccine.

The next step for Zyus is to produce enough plant-based proteins for VIDO-InterVac to then test in animal models of COVID-19.

“We expect to have a purified vaccine protein in a vial by the end of August that we can then give to VIDO-InterVac and then see if it’s the right one, see if it needs to be adjusted or see if it’s ready to be made into a vaccine that can be presented to animals,” Zetl said.

“That’ll be the first transfer point where we can actually see what’s happening,” he added.

The use of marijuana compounds is one of several pathways towards a coronavirus vaccine that VIDO-InterVac is exploring.

“It’s significantly behind our other vaccine candidates right now,” said Dr. Paul Hodgson, senior manager at VIDO-InterVac.

“I think the more valuable thing is working with a plant expression company like Zyus to see whether their methods for expressing protein might be suitable for COVID-19, or perhaps even wave two of COVID-19, or other infectious diseases,” he added.

Zyus is not alone in working with cannabis in the fight against COVID-19. Researchers at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, found that some marijuana strains reduce the activity of the main viral receptor thought to be responsible for COVID-19’s entry into host cells.

An extract from the study reads as follows:

The extracts of our most successful and novel high CBD C. sativa lines, pending further investigation, may become a useful and safe addition to the treatment of COVID-19 as an adjunct therapy. They can be used to develop easy-to-use preventative treatments in the form of mouthwash and throat gargle products for both clinical and at-home use.

Such products ought to be tested for their potential to decrease viral entry via the oral mucosa. Given the current dire and rapidly evolving epidemiological situation, every possible therapeutic opportunity and avenue must be considered.

Scientists at the Center for Cannabis Research in Haifa, Israel, are making plans to study marijuana’s efficacy at repairing tissues damaged by COVID-19. Research to date indicates many patients struck with the coronavirus suffer from an uncontrolled inflammatory response, known as a cytokine storm, which the scientists believe cannabis could help alleviate. They hope to start clinical trials within a few months.