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Helius discovery triggers research to protect cannabis yields

New Zealand’s largest licenced medicinal cannabis company, Helius Therapeutics, is delighted to be working closely with Plant & Food Research as it looks at ways to diagnose and manage an obscure international plant disease which can significantly stunt both potency and yield in cannabis cultivars.

Underside of a cannabis leaf as seen under a microscope

Known as Hop Latent Viroid (HLVd), the Ministry of Primary Industries has recently registered it as a new plant pathogen in New Zealand to affect a medicinal cannabis research crop. It will also be noted and released in the latest Surveillance magazine.

HLVd, previously known as ‘dudding’ or ‘stunting’ disease, was formally characterised in 2019 in Cannabis sativa, and its first reported occurrence in New Zealand is not unexpected. However, its early discovery by Helius is viewed positively for the country’s newest industry. Work is now underway locally to better identify and understand this pathogen.

Cultivation Manager at Helius, Ikaika (Kai) Keli'iho'omalu first discovered HLVd by sight in a cannabis research crop. Identifying the viroid this way takes experience. Something Mr Keli'iho'omalu has in abundance, as a third-generation cannabis cultivator who has managed commercial grow sites around the world, before emigrating to New Zealand.

Kai Keli'iho'omalu, Cultivation Manager at Helius Therapeutics.

“HLVd has been prevalent throughout the United States, stunting yields as much as 40%, so when Kai recognised one of the crops wasn’t doing so well, we acted. The research then began as did our process improvements to avoid any future occurrence, contamination or spread,” says Carmen Doran, Chief Executive of Helius Therapeutics.

As cannabis seeds are imported to New Zealand, it was only a matter of time before HVLd was identified locally by licenced cultivators with access to analytical testing. Indeed, it is likely the viroid has been in the country for a number of years before this recent discovery.

She says, as well as Plant & Food Research’s work to establish a lab test to identify HLVd’s presence in plant material, and to better understand how it spreads and potentially treat it, Helius partnered with leading agri-tech company, BioLumic, to test for HLVd on its behalf.

The relationship with BioLumic is an established one. Last year, Helius announced its formal collaboration with BioLumic to research its unique ultraviolet technology to stimulate the growth of medicinal cannabis.

“Based in Palmerston North, BioLumic leads the world with its UV treatments significantly increasing yields. They’re all about natural solutions to crop protection and yield enhancement and so to have that level of international expertise right here underlines the strength of New Zealand’s biotech sector,” says Ms Doran.

Executive Director of BioTechNZ, Dr Zahra Champion, says the first reported occurrence of HLVd in cannabis is significant and a massive learning opportunity for the country’s new medicinal cannabis industry which will only help its long-term success.

“This viroid is highly transmissible and could’ve been devastating if New Zealand’s commercial cultivation was underway at significant scale. This early discovery and the research now underway will undoubtedly save our medicinal cannabis sector down the track,” she says.

As MedCan Summit 2021 organiser, Dr Champion says the two-day October forum is now investigating ways to include a presentation or workshop on HLVd and the many learnings for New Zealand’s medicinal cannabis sector.

Fellow medicinal cannabis company Puro agrees it’s advantageous this viroid has been discovered early, with major players in the local sector and key agencies now more prepared and better skilled.

“The confirmation that the HLVd is present in NZ gives the industry a big heads-up and reminds us all to be extra vigilant when it comes to biosecurity,” says Tim Aldridge, Managing Director of Puro NZ.

“We were fully aware of HLVd’s prevalence overseas, and have put in place measures to keep it out of our growing operations. In particular, the risk of HLVd was a key consideration when selecting Puro’s preferred seed suppliers.

“The discovery by Helius of the viroid in New Zealand, and the work with Plant & Food Research, will help cannabis companies better understand HLVd. It also gives the industry the chance to fine tune their protocols and practices in and around our cultivation and handling of plant material and equipment,” says Mr Aldridge.

Plant & Food Research, Auckland

Ms Doran says the Helius team, led by its internationally experienced Chief Science Officer, Dr Jim Polston, will continue to collaborate with the local industry on key findings and best practice. The company has been impressed with the level of commitment displayed by Plant & Food Research and officials inside the Ministry of Primary Industries.

“This viroid has absolutely no impact on consumers but if left unchecked it would have a significant impact on our burgeoning medicinal cannabis sector. As the largest local player, Helius has effectively taken one for the team and is now investing time and resource to minimise its reoccurrence in New Zealand," says Carmen Doran.

"Delivering maximum yields and developing the world’s most efficacious cannabis medicines is our collective goal here in New Zealand. This discovery and added research will ultimately protect our industry, as well as help us reach and treat more patients over time," says Carmen Doran.

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