Breeding of plant varieties with pharmaceutical uses and their cultivation at an industrial scale

Written on March 29th, 2017

by Phytoplant Research S.L.

The medicinal plant market has grown exponentially in recent years as a result of a renewed general interest in natural remedies of those pursuing a healthy lifestyle. Active substances define the biological activity of medicinal plants and enable their classification into chemotypes, and are thus the principal criterion used to select, genetically improve and develop new varieties. They are also used to control the performance and quality of crops at an industrial scale.

Plant-based remedies, as well as animal and mineral-based ones to a lesser extent, have been used since the times of ancient civilizations (Mesopotamia, Egyptian, Chinese, Hindu and Greek). Many formulas using oils, alcohols, wines, fats, honey, milk and wax as vehicles in medicinal products are referenced from antiquity until early in the 19th century, when the active substances in these natural remedies were isolated. This gave way to a genuine industrial revolution that culminated in the mid-20th century with the most important advancements in the pharmaceutical industry and the almost complete substitution of “natural or traditional medicine” by “modern medicine”, except for natural therapies and herbal medicine, which still use traditional plant-based remedies.

The first industrial medicinal products appeared at this time, expanding the sector of natural products with medicinal properties to include pharmaceutical preparations made from the same natural products. While natural products have always been obtained from the natural environment, a thriving pharmaceutical industry fostered the industrial-scale cultivation of plants with pharmaceutical uses. New varieties producing more of the active substances to be isolated were thus bred. Agricultural exploitation related to the pharmaceutical industry became essential to safeguard biodiversity, which has been significantly harmed by the indiscriminate collection of wild plant species due to the increasing global demand.

In addition to the important environmental aspect, agricultural exploitation guarantees that the quality of the plant material used as “starting material” to manufacture plant-based medicinal products is reproducible and standardized, whether it consists of plants, plant substances or plant preparations. To this end, the Committee on Herbal Medicinal Products (HMPC) of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) prepared the document “Guidelines for Good Agricultural and Wild Collection Practice (GACP)”, which compiles recommendations to apply an appropriate quality guarantee system and provides detailed information for the entire agricultural production phase, covering from the selection of the specific variety to be grown, to the cultivation, harvesting and drying conditions, given the impact these stages have on the quality of the vegetable substance and therefore on that of the finished product. Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) are also crucial for the manufacture of medicinal products.

GLOBALGAP is a globally recognized standard that constantly updates the necessary requirements for Good Agricultural Practices applicable to different agricultural products. In fact, as of July 1, 2016, it is mandatory to use the new Version 5.0, which compels producers to only work with varieties that are registered in official records and to follow copyright laws that apply to each case.

GMPs are recommendations that apply to processes to manufacture medicinal products, which include those prepared from plants. Given the emergent direct use of dried inflorescences of Cannabis for medicinal purposes, GMP certification may also be acquired for the agricultural production phase.

Dissemination of the medicinal use of products obtained from Cannabis has encouraged several companies to become involved in the breeding of varieties. In fact, companies such as Phytoplant Research are actively developing new varieties characterized by having active substances other than the historically most studied active substance, delta9-THC, which are extremely relevant as “starting material” for the pharmaceutical industry. They thus provide a concrete alternative to conventional agriculture and, simultaneously, favor the comprehension of the medicinal application of such active substances (CBD, CBDV, CBG, CBGV, CBC, CBCV, delta9-THCV, and their acid forms), which have not yet been studied in depth.

It is estimated that about 400-500 species are exploited by the pharmaceutical industry to obtain active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs). These species have barely been genetically improved to increase their active substance content and, to this day, most have relatively few bred varieties.

Recently in Spain, more attention is starting to be given to the breeding of medicinal plant varieties. In fact, a Working Group on Plants with Pharmaceutical Uses was created and presented at the latest ANOVE General Assembly, held on March 16, 2017.

As for scientific research on medicinal plants and their byproducts, the Society for Medicinal Plant and Natural Product Research (GA), in Europe, is primarily focused on promoting the investigation and development of genetic resources, genetic improvement and industrial-scale cultivation of medicinal plants. It is worth mention that the sixth edition of the International Symposium for Breeding Research on Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (BREEDMAP 6) took place in Germany in June 2016, and the next edition will be held in France in 2020. Phytoplant Research believes that the time has come to start working together across the country for the next edition of this symposium to be located in Spain in 2024.

This article appeared originally on the blog on the Spanish association that reunites private companies and public centers dedicated to the create added value by breeding and obtaining new plant varieties: