Cannabinoids act on cannabinoid receptors and other target molecules to modulate a wide range of physiological behavior such as neurotransmitter release. Cannabinoids are produced naturally in humans (called endocannabinoids) and by several plant species (called Phyto cannabinoids) including Cannabis sativa. Cannabinoids have been shown to have several beneficial medical/therapeutic effects and therefore they are an active area of investigation by the pharmaceutical industry for use as pharmaceutical products for various diseases.
Currently the production of cannabinoids for pharmaceutical or other use is done by chemical synthesis or through the extraction of cannabinoids from plants that are producing these cannabinoids, for example Cannabis sativa. There are several drawbacks to the current methods of cannabinoid production. The chemical synthesis of various cannabinoids is a costly process when compared to the extraction of cannabinoids from naturally occurring plants. The chemical synthesis of cannabinoids also involves the use of chemicals that are not environmentally friendly, which can be considered as an additional cost to their production. Furthermore, the synthetic chemical production of various cannabinoids has been classified as less pharmacologically active as those extracted from plants such as Cannabis sativa.
Although there are drawbacks to chemically synthesized cannabinoids, the benefit of this production method is that the end product is a highly pure single cannabinoid. This level of purity is preferred for pharmaceutical use. The level of purity required by the pharmaceutical industry is reflected by the fact that only one plant extract-based cannabinoid production has received FDA approval and synthetic compounds have been mostly unsuccessful.
In contrast to the synthetic chemical production of cannabinoids, the other method that is currently used to produce cannabinoids is production of cannabinoids in plants that naturally produce these chemicals; the most used plant for this is Cannabis sativa. In this method, the plant Cannabis sativa is cultivated and during the flowering cycle various cannabinoids are produced naturally by the plant. The plant can be harvested, and the cannabinoids can be ingested for pharmaceutical purposes in various methods directly from the plant itself or the cannabinoids can be extracted from the plant.
There are multiple methods to extract the cannabinoids from the plant Cannabis sativa. All of these methods typically involve placing the plant, Cannabis sativa that contains the cannabinoids, into a chemical solution that selectively solubilizes the cannabinoids into this solution. There are various chemical solutions used to do this such as hexane, cold water extraction methods, CO2 extraction methods, and others. This chemical solution, now containing all the different cannabinoids, can then be removed, leaving behind the excess plant material. The cannabinoid containing solution can then be further processed for use.
There are several drawbacks of the natural production and extraction of cannabinoids in plants such as Cannabis sativa. Since there are numerous cannabinoids produced by Cannabis sativa it is often difficult to reproduce identical cannabinoid profiles in plants using an extraction process. Furthermore, variations in plant growth will lead to different levels of cannabinoids in the plant itself making reproducible extraction difficult. Different cannabinoid profiles will have different pharmaceutical effects which are not desired for a pharmaceutical product. Furthermore, the extraction of cannabinoids from Cannabis sativa extracts produces a mixture of cannabinoids and not a highly pure single pharmaceutical compound. Since many cannabinoids are similar in structure it is difficult to purify these mixtures to a high level resulting in cannabinoid contamination of the end product.
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