Vitality Biopharma Inc. once worked to improve the taste and global supply of stevia, a sugar substitute.

But the company has found a sweeter product to pitch to investors: pharmaceuticals derived from cannabis.

The company, which was originally called Stevia First Corp. and based outside of Sacramento, discovered a key stevia enzyme that could lead to a range of cannabis-derived drugs for serious neurological and inflammatory disorders, without the high associated with marijuana.

Armed with the info, the firm moved its headquarters to Century City two years ago, changed its name to Vitality Biopharma and pivoted toward pot.

“Our biosynthesis platform was more useful than anyone realized,” said Robert Brooke, Vitality Biopharma’s co-founder and chief executive. “We could not only improve the quality of stevia compounds, but also cannabinoids.

“The work that we’re doing with pharmaceuticals is far more lucrative,” Brooke added.

Vitality Bio has a pipeline of cannabinoid pharmaceuticals geared toward treating painful gastrointestinal disorders. Clinical trials are expected to begin early next year.

The company also closed an $8.5 million raise last month with warrants that give investors the right to contribute another $17 million in exchange for more company equity.

The company also pulled off an all-stock purchase in October of Control Center, a pain treatment clinic based in Beverly Hills that includes cannabinoid therapy to wean patients off of addictive opioids.

“Our latest funding round will take us to a whole new level,” said Brooke, who declined to name his biggest investors.

Emerging market

The emerging market for cannabinoid pharmaceuticals hit a milestone in June when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first drug derived from marijuana.

GW Pharmaceuticals, a drug-maker based in the United Kingdom, launched Epidiolex, made from cannabidiol oil (CBD), a nonpsychotropic component of cannabis sativa, to treat two rare forms of epilepsy in newborns.

As Canada and a growing number of states – 10 plus Washington, D.C. – legalize the sale of recreational marijuana, biotech firms are rushing into the space, hoping to realize cannabinoid medical breakthroughs.

Arena Pharmaceuticals Inc., a biotech company based in San Diego, is testing a cannabinoid drug for patients with Crohn’s disease, a chronic ailment that affects the digestive tract.

Other U.S. cannabinoid-based drug companies include Zynerba Pharmaceuticals Inc., of Devon, Pa., and Corbus Pharmaceuticals Inc., of Norwood, Mass.

Even Big Pharma is getting into the cannabinoid game. Sandoz Canada, a subsidiary of Swiss-based Novartis International that manufactures generic and biosimilar drugs, signed a deal with Canada’s Tilray Inc. on Dec. 18 to distribute nonsmokable medical cannabis products.

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