Meet a Hemp Expert: Dr. Michael Timko

By Julia Lynn Rubin

Morven Farms just prior to harvest. Dr. Timko in center.

Back in the day, the state of Virginia was a major center for hemp growth and cultivation, but it wasn’t until the Agricultural Act of 2014 (specifically, Section 7606) that researchers like Dr. Michael Timko could once again pursue a full-time career in studying the plant’s many agricultural and health benefits. Dr. Timko currently serves as the Lewis & Clark Chair of Biology and the Director of Undergraduate Program in Human Biology at the University of Virginia, where he is part of an exciting new Hemp Research Program that is presently focused on breeding new varieties.

While studying agriculture at Rutgers University, Dr. Timko worked on genetic improvement research and the breeding of vegetable crops, both of which sparked his interest in plant science as a career path. He earned both his M.S. and Ph.D. at Rutgers before going on to do several post-docs at Brandeis and Rockefeller University.

“I was learning how to do gene manipulation and understanding how traits are controlled in plants from a molecular level,” he tells Remedy Review. “Then I drifted back towards my agricultural roots and started working with questions in plant biology and how to improve crops for making them more disease- and pest-resistant.”

Dr. Timko studied questions around improving the nutritional qualities of plants and focused on growing plants for making therapeutics.

Before joining the hemp pilot program at UVA, Dr. Timko worked at a tobacco company where he studied ways to reduce the harmful components of the crop. At the time, tobacco was getting involved in the hemp industry, and exploring ways in which hemp could be cultivated for medicinal purposes. Dr. Timko was approached to develop varieties of hemp. With his plant-breeding background and interest in the ways hemp could serve industrial and medicinal purposes, he found an excellent fit.

As the Commonwealth of Virginia used to be a major center of tobacco and hemp cultivation, Dr. Timko wondered: “What would it take to re-energize the hemp industry here in the state?” He wondered how he could create an economic, state-wide incentive around a commercially viable product like hemp. He found the genetic manipulation of hemp and tobacco are quite similar.

While not as “demanding as corn” nor as “enriching to the soil as soybeans,” Dr. Timko explains that hemp has its share of pluses and minuses in terms of cultivation. Ultimately, however, the benefits of growing the crop outweigh any possible setbacks, especially as agricultural experts continue to learn new ways to breed emerging varieties that produce high-value cannabinoids.

Industrial Hemp field at Montpelier.

Currently, Dr. Timko and his research team are using what he calls a dual approach in cultivating hemp, as they are working closely with the UVA Medical School. “One [approach] is to use traditional breeding in genetics as a way of improvement,” he explains, “and the other is to develop a molecular tool for doing genetic engineering on hemp so that we can genetically tailor hemp varieties to be able to grow and produce the way we want them. We could conceivably change fiber characteristics or change growth characteristics or change seed composition the way they’ve done in other crops using genetic modification.”

Dr. Timko hopes that his team can find ways to make hemp visually recognizable and easy to tell apart from marijuana, such as making industrial hemp red or purple. This would also identify the product as being safe, tested, and free of contamination and disease, and in turn, create a “structural difference” between recreational and medicinal cannabis plants that would be clearly visible to any law enforcement agency.

“I think the U.S. is just catching up to the rest of the world in understanding that there can be a value to having a legalized industrial hemp crop,” he tells us. But until the DEA declassifies cannabis from its Schedule 1 status, there will continue to be legal challenges for researchers, doctors, and cultivators.

As for the future of hemp, Dr. Timko doesn’t want to see an over-regulation of CBD or the cannabinoids industry, nor does he want the pharmaceutical companies to have control.  Nonetheless, he does believe in having guidelines and regulations in place in order to protect the general public from consuming products that are not well-researched and tested.

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