New Zealand medicinal cannabis company Helius Therapeutics and Plant & Food Research are examining ways to diagnose and manage an obscure international plant disease which can significantly stunt potency and yield in cannabis cultivars.

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

HLVd, previously known as ‘dudding’ or ‘stunting’ disease, was formally characterised in 2019 in cannabis sativa. While its first reported occurrence in New Zealand is not unexpected given cannabis seeds are imported, its early discovery by Helius means work is now underway to better identify and understand it.

It is thought likely the viroid has been in the country for a number of years before this recent discovery.

Helius cultivation manager Ikaika (Kai) Keli’iho’omalu first discovered HLVd by sight in a cannabis research crop.

Helius cultivation manager Ikaika Keli’iho’omalu first identified HLVd by sight

Chief executive Carmen Doran said: “HLVd has been prevalent throughout the US, 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.”

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 has partnered with agri-tech company BioLumic to test for HLVd on its behalf.

BioTechNZ executive director Dr Zahra Champion said the first reported occurrence of HLVd in cannabis is a learning opportunity for the country’s new medicinal cannabis industry which will 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 added.

BioTechNZ executive director Dr Zahra Champion: early discovery and research will save NZ’s medicinal cannabis sector ‘down the track’

Fellow medicinal cannabis company Puro also welcomed the early discovery. Managing director Tim Aldridge said: “The confirmation that 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.”

“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 protocols and practices in and around cultivation and handling of plant material and equipment.”

Doran added: “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.

“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.”

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