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Faculty Profile: UVA Biology Professor, Michael Timko, Ph.D.

UVA Biology Professor, Michael Timko, Ph.D. has been studying functional genomics of plants at UVA for over 30 years. He has conducted sponsored research ranging from the examination of photosynthetic efficiency of pine trees in the southern United States to enhancing the agronomic productivity and nutritional value of cowpeas in West Africa. His expertise in selectively manipulating cellular metabolism is highly valuable to his industrial partners in the plant and human therapeutics based arenas and led him towards his work on industrial hemp with 22nd Century Group, a New York-based plant biotechnology company  specializing in the production of very low nicotine cigarettes and other smoking cessation devices.

When Timko entered into conversations with 22nd Century to conduct hemp research, he engaged with LVG to facilitate the funded research agreement. LVG collaborated with the UVA Office of Sponsored Programs (OSP) during the contract negotiations and executed the exclusive license agreement that formed an integral part of the research agreement.

Timko’s enthusiasm for industry-funded hemp research extends beyond his scientific expertise in plant biology to the economic opportunities and potential for a hemp industry resurgence in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The agreement with 22nd Century allowed him to acquire proprietary hemp seeds and germplasm from the company that will form the basis for generating hemp varieties uniquely adapted for growth in Virginia.    

“In the 1800’s Virginia was a leading hemp producer and we have lost generations of knowledge about growing and cultivating hemp for industrial and medical use,” Timko said. “History shows us that the mid-Atlantic region is optimal for growing hemp, and we should be growing it here instead of importing it from overseas. Our goal is to generate elite varieties of hemp plants with commercially useful characteristics that would bring economic value to the Commonwealth.”

Industrial hemp is a distinct strain of Cannabis or marijuana species with low levels of the psychoactive agent tetrahydrocannabinol, known as THC. The average THC level in recreational marijuana available today is 18.7 percent, while industrial hemp has only 0.3 percent. Industrial hemp has antimicrobial properties, making it extremely resistant and suitable for producing items such as rope, clothing for mountaineering, and hempcrete for industrial purposes.

Companies like Patagonia are increasingly interested in the value of industrial hemp for clothing material production. As the United States remains the only country that continues to classify hemp as a schedule 1 drug, the only current option is to import it from Canada and Europe. After the Farm Bill passed in 2014 allowing those with research permits to grow the plant, Timko received permits both from the Virginia Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services and DEA that allows him to work not only on the industrial and manufacturing aspects of the plant, but also on the medically related uses. Thus, his work with 22nd Century Group also focuses on helping them become a supplier of medicinally valuable hemp extracts for human therapeutics and nutritional purposes.

For example, Timko’s hemp research also includes studying the cannabinoids that can be extracted from the plants for use in the treatment of patients with epilepsy and inflammatory diseases such as arthritis. UVA has the biggest epilepsy research center in the state and Timko is collaborating with faculty in the Department of Pharmacology at the UVA School of Medicine to create different compositions of cannabinoids for various uses. The results could lead to drug development allowing patients to receive the medicinal benefits of cannabinoids without the psychoactive side effects of recreational marijuana, a favorable alternative for pediatric patients.

Since much of the stigma associated with marijuana is the presence of psychoactive THC, one of Timko’s research goals is to specifically manipulate the biochemistry of industrial hemp to create a zero percent THC strain, removing all psychoactive components while leaving the plant rich in cannabinoids with medicinal value. A THC-free strain would also be beneficial in creating a safe seed product with fat content suitable for animal feed and aquaculture fish food. While industrial hemp and recreational marijuana can be grown in the same or similar environments, this is never done, since growers want to avoid the risk of cross-pollination that would effectively ruin both crops.

“We are reaching a tipping point in the national conversation around marijuana, and I am excited at the prospect of what changing legislation could mean for industrial hemp,” Timko said. “Engaging often with LVG helps maximize the opportunities available through my industry research agreement, and as they explore potential commercialization pathways, I can focus on advancing the research.”

The LVG team comprised of Ph.D.’s, J.D.’s, and M.B.A.’s offers UVA faculty researchers like Timko resources at the intersection of science and industry. As the national landscape around marijuana evolves, LVG will work with Timko to ensure his research is positioned to generate economically valuable outcomes through commercialization.