UK: Article – The Observer: A new leaf? The Cornish company trying to unlock secrets of cannabis

Rather than making products, Phytome alters the cultivation of the plants themselves in a bid to create new compounds

Elegantly refurbished farm buildings hardly merit a second look near the Cornish coast, but the CCTV cameras on stalks around the Trelonk estate hint at something unusual. This is not a second home, or Airbnb fodder: it’s a cannabis business.

The buildings, overlooking a bend in the River Fal amid the peaceful Roseland peninsula, are home to Phytome Life Sciences, and one of the few legal marijuana crops in the UK.

Cannabis legalisation is gaining momentum around the world, with some US states, Canada, Portugal and Uruguay among the places that have decriminalised recreational use to varying extents. MexicoGermany and Switzerland are among those who could follow soon. But even in stricter countries such as the UK, the door has been open since 2018 for prescribing cannabis-derived medical products.

Walk along the street in any large enough town in Britain and you can usually smell how successful, or otherwise, the UK’s ban on cannabis is. However, medicinal cannabis companies still have to follow extremely strict licensing requirements. Phytome’s laboratories may be in one of the most picturesque settings in Britain, but they have hefty security. There are 200kg bombproof doors, ram-raid-resistant wire mesh walls, and no recording devices.

Inside the building, racks of cannabis plants appear nearly black under rows of bright lights carefully tuned to different shades of purple, blue and pink and beyond; ultraviolet and far red light, invisible to the human eye, have the potential to stimulate the growth of useful compounds in the plants. Water, fertiliser and even humidity and carbon dioxide levels are controlled in order to find conditions that will stimulate the plant to produce chemicals that may have promising applications.

Phytome wants to “make the plant programmable” and “take the next step in indoor agriculture”, says Sebastian Vaughan, Phytome’s chief executive, on a tour of the site on a sunny February morning.

Cannabis-derived medicines are already used for pain relief, to treat some rare forms of epilepsy, and to help people undergoing chemotherapy. Phytome will research new ways of growing the plants, but it will also look beyond the best known substances they produce – THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the controlled component that causes the cannabis high) and CBD (cannabidiol, which is increasingly available in high street products).

“Cannabis is a major area of opportunity,” says Vaughan, suggesting there are as many as 500 chemicals in cannabis plants, compared with about 30 in a herb such as basil. “Most people are focused on THC and CBD. Cannabis produces a heck of a lot of chemicals.”

But plants can be unpredictable – particularly if left exposed to the vagaries of Cornish weather. Vaughan hopes that by controlling every possible variable, the company can turn a “herbal product into something that can be produced to high grade, high specification”.


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