Israel has built world-class businesses in cyber security, agricultural technology and big data analysis. Now it has global ambitions in medical marijuana.
Last week an Israeli government committee took the first step towards advancing legislation that would allow the export of medical marijuana products. Officials hope it will encourage new investment and innovation in the field and boost its agricultural sector.
There are a number of Israeli companies aiming to tap this niche but growing industry. They range from farming groups, taking advantage of Israel’s sunny climate and relaxed regulatory environment for cultivating cannabis for medical use, to companies such as Syqe Medical.
Start-up Syqe has developed a handheld inhaler, equipped with a disposable cartridge that dispenses marijuana in precise doses, down to the milligram.
Israel’s Teva Pharmaceuticals, the world’s biggest maker of generic drugs, recently signed an agreement with Syqe to distribute its product in Israel. Philip Morris, the tobacco group, invested $20m in the company in early 2016 and is studying its technology as one way to reduce the danger caused to smokers of traditional tobacco products when they combust.
Syqe’s inhaler has been in use for more than 18 months at Haifa’s Ramban hospital, where patients have been taking it for pain relief.
“We’ve developed the world’s first meter-dose system for cannabis,” says Perry Davidson, Syqe’s chief executive. The company says it has identified the “therapeutic window” between psychoactivity — the feeling of being high — and pain relief.
The medical marijuana sector is relatively new and prone to hype. It contends with concerns on how to measure doses and varying regulations around the world on how cannabis can be cultivated, tested and dispensed.
Nonetheless, it is recording some early successes in testing on a widening range of ailments.
Britain’s GW Pharma, a maker of marijuana-based medicines, has developed a cannabis-based multiple sclerosis treatment, Sativex, which is approved for use in more than 29 countries. It recently announced that its drug Epidiolex had succeeded in reducing epileptic seizures in its first significant clinical trial.
Israel’s head start in the field, like many of its other new industries, had a basis in academic research. Raphael Mechoulam, a chemist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, was a pioneer in isolating cannabinoids, the group of active compounds present in cannabis.
According to iCAN (Israel Cannabis), a private research and investment group that sponsors an annual conference on medical marijuana, Israel has about 50 companies operating in the field.
“We are a significant player in the cannabis space,” says Saul Kaye, iCAN’s founder and chief executive.
Israel’s rightwing government is promoting the sector, as it has other new technology industries, as a way of creating jobs and spurring investment.
The Jewish state allows producers of medical marijuana to conduct clinical trials, in contrast with the US, where testing medical cannabis on humans is forbidden.
“I think that Israel enjoys both the agricultural knowledge that is needed in order to grow marijuana, and the biotech knowledge that can improve the needed medical marijuana specifications,” says Yoav Kisch, an MP with Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party who sponsored the bill. “This could be a very strong, good business for the Israeli agriculture industry, which has many difficulties today.”
Another Israeli medical company, Breath of Life Pharma, known as BOL Pharma, has developed a range of ways to deliver cannabis, including tablets that dissolve under the tongue and inhalers. This year the company is conducting or planning more than a dozen phase-two clinical trials of the drug to treat conditions ranging from Tourette’s syndrome and autism to Parkinson’s and chronic liver disease.
It is also building a factory in Jerusalem to purify and separate cannabinoids that it plans to open up to European and other companies that wish to conduct clinical trials.
“This is ‘high’ high tech,” says Tamir Gedo, BOL Pharma’s chief executive.
Drug companies say it is still too early to say whether medical marijuana will take off in earnest. One concern is that it is difficult to calibrate dosage because strength varies from batch to batch, and the use of substances such as pesticides make it difficult to produce regulated pharmaceuticals.
Kalytera, another Israeli company, is seeking to circumvent the concerns by producing a synthetic drug that it is testing on patients suffering from graft versus host disease, which afflicts some people who undergo bone marrow transplants.
“You have total control over all the aspects of the synthesis, so you know every patient will get a dose that’s understood — and a limitless supply,” says Andrew Salzman, the company’s chief executive.
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