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Hundreds of delegates from all over the world descend on Israel for the annual CannaTech conference, founded to identify and incubate world-class solutions for the cannabis industry.

Can cannabis cure cancer? That’s a question Prof. David “Dedi” Meiri, head of the Laboratory of Cancer Biology and Cannabanoid Research at the Technion-Israeli Institute of Technology, is trying to figure out. The answer so far is a very guarded “maybe.”

CannaTech was founded in 2015 as a platform to enable the identification and incubation of world-class innovative solutions for the cannabis industry. The conference also has taken place in London and is scheduled for Mexico and Australia later this year.

While there was no product for sale in the vast exhibit hall, there was plenty of buzz from companies developing everything from medical inhalers, which deliver medical cannabis the way similar devices dose asthma powders, to specific treatments.

The IVC Research Center counts 68 companies in Israel active in the medical cannabis field, employing some 900 people. From 2013 to 2017, more than $76 million was invested in Israeli medical cannabis startups.

Many of those companies were on display at CannaTech, held in a trendy nightclub at the Old Tel Aviv Port.

They included well-known names such as Tikun Olam, which grows and supplies medical cannabis to 12,000 Israeli patients a year (some 800 of them children), and up-and-comers such as Kanabo Research, which is developing cannabis oil formulations for use with its VapePod delivery system recently approved by the Israeli Ministry of Health.

At the same time, it was reported in February that the Israeli government halted a plan to authorize the export of medical cannabis, a business valued at more than $1 billion a year.

“It’s a disgrace,” said CannaTech and iCAN Israel CEO Saul Kaye. “The government is missing out on a massive opportunity to become the world leader. This is a mature, robust R&D-focused opportunity that is looking to globalize.”

Saul Kaye, CEO of iCAN and CannaTech, opening the fourth annual CannaTech Israel conference in Tel Aviv. Photo by Tal Pais/Photogenim

Nevertheless, Israel is the recognized leader in cannabis research and innovation, attested to by visitors from 40 countries at CannaTech. And not all were focused on medical applications.

Cannabis activist Steve DeAngelo of Harborside, the largest cannabis dispensary in the United States, opened the event with a call to move beyond what he called “the hippie manifesto” to a world where cannabis – not just medical cannabis — is legal for all. Alan Gertner, who heads Canadian “lifestyle brand” Tokyo Smoke, said the cannabis industry needs its own version of Starbucks, which “sold us an accessible story about coffee.”

In the physician’s toolbox

But the largest applause was reserved for the scientists.

Tikun Olam’s head pediatric nurse, Na’ama Saban, described the benefits she has seen with her young patients. She cited a 1990s study in which kids with epilepsy were treated with medical cannabis and stopped seizing.

“It was so successful we had to stop the trial. Instead, we gave all the children the treatment,” she said. Another study with epileptics from 2014 resulted in a 70 percent reduction in seizures with almost no side effects.

“The results were unexpected – even to us,” Saban told the packed audience.

Medical cannabis executives speaking at a press conference at CannaTech Israel 2018. Photo by Tal Pais/Photogenim

Meiri, one of Israel’s cannabis research superstars, was a featured speaker later the same week at TEDxTelAviv.

Meiri said he has seen in his lab that cannabis can kill cancer cells. However, there are hundreds of types of cancer, each with unique characteristics.

“One cancer activates a protein, while another shuts down the same protein,” he said. “So do you treat both with the same kind of cannabis?”

Moreover, there are hundreds of compounds in cannabis. “Some don’t even have a name, just a number,” Meiri pointed out.

One compound might help colon cancer but does nothing for prostate cancer. The balance between specific cannabinoids such as THC and CBD in the cannabis plant doesn’t seem to make a difference, either. “So which do you choose?” Meiri asked. “We don’t know.”

Meiri and his students are actively mapping cannabis compounds for cancer, running trials in mice models and trying to crack the code. Sometimes even the smallest tweaks matter. Does it make a difference if cannabis oil is extracted from the plant via CO2 or ethanol? “Yes,” Meiri says, “but we don’t know yet which is better, just that there’s a difference.”

And then there are the negative effects. If cannabis can tamp down a hyperactive immune system (which is how it can help patients with Crohn’s disease), would that have a less than positive effect for someone receiving immunotherapy treatments for cancer? All these questions are on Meiri’s chalkboard.

Cannabis should be another tool in the physician’s toolbox, Meiri said. “It’s our responsibility to take it to the next level. We owe it to the patients.