From 1996 to 2000, Kevin McKernan worked on the Human Genome Project as a research and development specialist for the world famous Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge. With that and other relevant experience on his resume, in 2011 the MIT graduate’s own company, Medicinal Genomics, became the first outfit to map the genome of cannabis sativa and indica. I recently had the opportunity to speak with McKernan on my streaming WEMF Radio show “The Young Jurks.” His team is located in Woburn, and they have answers to some questions that you and your friends have probably been arguing about for years.
When you map a strain such as Chemdawg, are you able to determine the strain that is brought to you and determine whether it is truly Chemdawg or, say, OG Kush? Does it often turn out to be what is advertised?
The first thing we need to do is end this strain name game going on, because there is a whole lot of counterfeiting. People are tempted to name it after the latest and greatest. It’s not there today, we still have to map a thousand plants, we will get there. That’s why we are looking for the exotic strains, it will be here in two years.
How did you get into mapping cannabis?
Back in 2011, I was working at a life sciences company and got the itch to move on. I had an anti-compete, [and] it didn’t apply if I was mapping cannabis. What followed next was a clandestine trip to Amsterdam to start the process of mapping cannabis strains in a hotel room. We had to figure out a way to purify DNA in a hotel room so we could get it through the TSA …
We put the first two online for free. The lesson we learned from the Human Genome Project was that the project became a patenting mess. We have to dance around gene patents to help kids with [epilepsy]. It’s madness. When we sequence this we are looking for something useful without a gene patent. By releasing the data online we avoid the patenting mess.
Are you working with other labs?
Locally we are working with MCR Labs and companies out in Colorado offering our services for dispensaries … We are working on QR codes linked to a secure strain open source database with a goal that every dispensary offer this labeling so that patients will know the genetics of the product they are consuming.
How does your service work for patients?
We get a patient’s saliva … A lot of the doctors are sophisticated on the genetics … For kids with epilepsy, we see kids on a circus of drugs, an average of three … One of those things physicians are starting to see [is] that we should test the genetics first out of the gate to determine which [prescription] drugs and strains will work the best for them … The lesson is that we need to learn to personalize medicine.
How many employees do you have right now and how many do you expect to have? Are you hiring? What types of positions, backgrounds are you looking for?
Right now, we are 50 people, 45 are really sequencing for patients with conditions like epilepsy to help them determine the medicine that is best for them … We are hiring, we are looking for folks in the bioInformatics field to analyze all these genomes and build these Phylogenetic trees, and also looking for folks in sales and marketing to bring this test out to the field, support folks as we are installing an instrument in the field that takes some sophistication to set up, [and] also molecular biologists. This is the town for it, we are the genetics capital of the world.
It’s clearly an explosive market. Denver is great, but they don’t have the biotech that we have here. Hopefully, the people working on future legislation [will] keep this in mind.