What if a test could tell you that you may have a negative reaction to pot before you ever smoked your first spliff? What if this same test could tell you if you’re likely to develop a habitual smoking problem? What if you could perform this test in your own home?
The world’s first cannabis genetic test will be available within the next month, offered by a Canadian company called AnantLife, which specializes in genetic testing and counseling for a variety of medical conditions, including assessments for cancer, autoimmune disorders, and dietary issues. The test is fairly simple: you take a sample of your saliva, mail the sample to the company, and they perform NextGen sequencing on your DNA. Using molecular biology tricks, they can identify genetic “markers” in your DNA that could indicate a higher probability toward adverse reactions from cannabis use, such as complications with mental disorders or the risk of becoming psychologically dependent on smoking.
Genetic markers are identified by what geneticists call “polymorphisms” in a particular gene. Although genes always have specific locations on the DNA, regardless of the individual, the exact makeup of that gene may differ from person to person. Those differences are polymorphisms, and certain gene variants carry specific polymorphisms. NextGen sequencing is designed to find those particular polymorphisms in the DNA, then copy that gene millions if not billions of times. If the gene in question is present in someone’s DNA, the copies will show up during analysis. If the individual does not possess that gene variant, the NextGen sequencing will be incapable of creating copies of that gene. Yes, the technology is that precise.
According to the most recent research, roughly 10 percent of cannabis users will develop a psychological dependence on the drug. A dependence is defined as habitual use that impedes or interferes with daily functioning. For instance, getting stoned and forgetting where your car keys are is not a sign of cannabis dependence. However, if your bong sessions cause you to keep missing work to the point that you can’t hold a job, then you may have cannabis dependency.
Most of us stoners may laugh at the idea of cannabis dependence — even daily use doesn’t equate to a full-blown addiction. But let’s be honest: we’ve all met at least one pothead who could benefit from taking a week-long break. Pair that (slim) reality of dependence with other problems, such as cannabis-induced anxiety or depression, and we see why some people, especially new patients who don’t identify with “marijuana culture,” may be interested in taking this test before they begin using the plant.
This test is also the real deal.
“It’s not some gimmick. Anantlife’s genetic testing laboratory is accredited by the College of American Pathologists (CAP) and is certified by the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA), the gold standards of medical testing certifications. Any test with these two endorsements has been cleared by medical professionals, and any data collected by these certified tests are considered legit by government, university, and hospital researchers in both the US and Canada.
To better understand how this test works and how it might benefit the cannabis community, MERRY JANE called up Dr. Rahul Kushwah, the chief science officer and cofounder at AnantLife. Prior to working at AnantLife, Dr. Kushwah conducted research on behalf of the Canadian government, and he served as a consultant for Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.
A photo of AnantLife’s genetic test, courtesy of Dr. Kushwa
MERRY JANE: How was this cannabis genetics test developed?
Dr. Kushwah: Firstly, we tried to identify what the need was in the market from the medical community as far as medical cannabis goes, as well as extensive analyses of all the published medical literature so far in the field of medical cannabis. That’s when we started to identify a large subset of genes that show an association with cannabis use. Then we went through all the medical data available in external databases, including the genetic data we had in our databases, for validation — that’s how those markers were validated. Eventually, in consultation with cannabis physicians, we were able to create a cannabis test.
Over the last two to three years, we’ve sold a lot of other genetic tests, and we’ve also provided a medical questionnaire. We ask about all the individual’s medical history and their family’s medical history. What that means is we’re accumulating a lot of genetic data which we can do research on. We also have an extensive board of scientists and doctors we work with, including the top cannabis physicians here in Canada. This is something we have been working on for the last eight to ten months.
How does this test analyze genetic data?
We are looking at lots and lots of markers. They are defined in different areas [of the DNA] such that the test is going to cover genetic predisposition to cannabis dependence. The test also identifies markers for not only dependence but also cognitive deficits and cardiovascular diseases. If someone has a very high predisposition to cardiovascular diseases, then with cannabis use there can be a lot of associated risks. We’re also looking at predisposition to eating disorders and how those relate to cannabis use. What the test gives is a complete profile of the individual in terms of how their body is going to react to cannabis.
What do you mean by cannabis dependence, and how does the test assess addiction risk?
There are markers that have shown association with cannabis dependence. Before cannabis, for instance, opioids were used all over the place for treating pain, and they’re still being used all over the place. Opioid dependence is a massive, massive problem all over North America. With medical cannabis, the hope is that a lot of patients who have been taking opioids for their pain could potentially be weaned off the opioids and be given medical cannabis instead. But before a physician feels comfortable prescribing medical cannabis, they need to understand how this patient’s body is going to react to it. You wouldn’t want to give medical cannabis to somebody who is highly predisposed to cognitive defects, perhaps even schizophrenia. That’s where the test comes in.
To put this simply, when a family physician gives a patient amoxicillin, they are at a relative peace of mind because they know what amoxicillin is going to do to a patient’s body. But when they are writing a license to the patient to take medical cannabis, there is a lot of fear they have in their minds. That’s where the cannabis genetic test comes in, to ease that fear the physician has in terms of what the cannabis is going to be doing to the individual.
In a nutshell, we cover several different genes for cannabis dependence, a total of 12 different markers. A lot of different markers in several studies have shown association to developing dependency for cannabis. There have been a lot of clinical studies conducted, and studies have been cleared to identify that individuals who carry these polymorphisms in their genes were more likely to develop — or they did show — cannabis dependence.
A photo of Dr. Kushwah, courtesy of AnantLife
How might this test be integrated into the medical community?
We will be dispensing this test through cannabis physicians. At the same time, it will be available in dispensaries, as well. It’s a saliva-based test, so there’s no need for blood to be taken. That makes the whole process a lot easier.
When will it be available?
This is launching in about three to four weeks. We have already started supplying it to a few clinics here in Canada, and the response has been really substantial, especially from the physician community.
In terms of privacy or data sharing, could this test potentially be used to discriminate against a patient?
That’s not possible because, luckily, in both the US and Canada, there is the Genetic Discrimination Act. Based on the genetic makeup of the individual, you cannot discriminate against them. For instance, you cannot increase their insurance premiums based on genetic information. We also use encryption for all of our data, and patients are identified by a barcode. Our employees never see names, they only see numbers.
Is this a for-profit venture? Is the test patented?
There was a time when you could patent genes, but nowadays we cannot patent any genes or any markers. So no, we can’t patent it, but yes, we are a biotechnology company, so this test is for-profit. But the way we are pricing it is something that is a lot, lot lower than most other genetic tests on the market. What we are aiming for is to help the medical cannabis community to further advance medical cannabis.
Is this test only available in Canada? Or can anyone access this test?
Anyone can get this test, because we have CLIA and CAP accreditation. Just as we’re sharing our other genetic tests, the cannabis test can also be purchased in the US.
What are the limitations of this test?
The genetics behind the different aspects of cannabis use are still evolving. Let’s say we’re looking at 30 or 40 different markers right now. This is going to change eventually. There could be other markers associated with the development of these phenotypes, which we don’t know, so our test is going to be evolving over time. Every two weeks, our technical team performs an extensive review of the new data coming in. Based on that, our test is going to be modified.
Are false positives possible with this test?
That’s the advantage of using the NextGen sequencing platform. We can copy the gene of interest over and over again. For every gene segment we are looking at, we are sequencing it at least 50 times for a high level of accuracy. That means we are targeting an accuracy rate of over 99 percent.
Has this test been approved by a regulatory agency?
Both in Canada and the US, there are specific regulations for the CLIA and CAP certifications. Health Canada and the US FDA take our data seriously. Other than that, there are no specific regulations at this stage.
What’s the price for this test right now?
Although we have not determined a specific price, for consumers it will be somewhere between $699 and $900. [Editor’s Note: The test is not currently covered by health insurance, though this is something AnantLife is working on].
Do you have any final thoughts to share with our readers?
There are two key points I want to highlight. One is the opioid crisis, and how there is a need to move individuals from opioids to cannabis for various conditions. That’s where the genetic test becomes really powerful, in identifying who are the best and who are the worst candidates to move from opioids to medical cannabis.
Second, the recreational use of cannabis is increasing all over the US and Canada. The onus really falls on the individual to understand how their body is going to react to regular recreational cannabis use. The genetic test offers them the right information, which they can use to make a better decision regarding whether they should be doing it or not.