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A Kentucky Company Wants to Study Hemp on the International Space Station

Cannabis research has been one of the great problems for a domestic industry dogged by the plant’s Schedule-I status. Late last year, the 2018 Farm Bill opened up access to hemp, legally defined as cannabis with less than 0.3-percent THC content. To really capitalize on that research potential, one Kentucky company is fleeing the planet and taking its hemp work into orbit.

Researchers at Space Tango in Lexington, Ky., will be sending a small crop of hemp plants to the International Space Station aboard SpaceX 17’s planned April 30 launch. The bioengineering enterprise will be working alongside CBD retailer Anavii Market and hemp cultivator Atalo Holdings to carry out this research.

Kris Kimel, co-founder and chairman of Space Tango, said in an April 22 webinar that the purpose behind this hemp experiment is to learn more about how the plant produces and develops cannabinoids and other chemical constituents. In a microgravity setting, Kimel said, “biological and physical systems are scrambled.” That can lead to new insights into biological behavior. Results from those studies may turn into solutions and applications to be used on Earth.

Last fall, Space Tango formed a subsidiary to focus specifically on hemp research. (The company was founded in 2010.)

Joe Chappell, chair of the University of Kentucky’s College of Pharmaceutical Sciences and a member of Space Tango’s Science Advisory Team, joined Kimel on the company’s webinar and spoke to the experiment’s potential for further “drug discovery,” especially now that the FDA and DEA have signaled a willingness to work with hemp-derived compounds.

“When plants are ‘stressed’ they pull from a genetic reservoir to produce compounds that allow them to adapt and survive,” Chappell said in a public statement when Space Tango announced its hemp plans. “Understanding how plants react in an environment where the traditional stress of gravity is removed can provide new insights into how adaptations come about and how researchers might take advantage of such changes for the discovery of new characteristics, traits, biomedical applications and efficacy.”

The Space Tango team has conducted similar experiments in space; the company partnered with Anheuser-Busch to study the growth of barley aboard the ISS. Recently, Chappell said, the team sent periwinkle and valeriana plants into orbit; Space Tango is still profiling the chemistry of those experiments, and formal results are forthcoming.

As to the hemp experiments, Chappell said the team will be closely monitoring cannabinoid development at the ISS. He mentioned the broad spectrum of more than 100 cannabinoids that develop in the cannabis plants and how little is presently known about many of them. The Space Tango experiment plants will be studied at the space station’s research and development labs (in microtechnology-equipped CubeLabs) for six weeks before they’re returned to Earth for analysis.

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