Recent changes to rules governing the production of medical marijuana in Canada have spurred a renewed interest in marijuana research. Under new government regulations that took effect April 1, the production of marijuana for medicinal purposes was shifted from Health Canada to large-scale commercial companies. As part of their operations, these companies are beginning to fund marijuana research in several areas, much of it contracted out to university researchers.
Mark Ware, a pain researcher at McGill University, said the recent regulatory changes could act as a springboard for new discoveries and he predicted that Canadian researchers could become world leaders in this area. “The opportunity is tremendous right now,” he said. “The possibilities have never been better.”
More than a dozen years ago, Dr. Ware began Canada’s first medical cannabis clinical trial, “a small pilot study,” shortly after the use of medical marijuana became regulated. But, in recent years, federal research funding in this area has been elusive. The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council has granted some funding for cannabis plant research, but a spokesperson for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research said “at the moment we do not fund any project on marijuana for medical purposes.” (The spokesperson recommended that “you speak with the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse.”)
Dr. Ware, director of clinical research at the McGill University Health Centre’s pain clinic, is also executive director of the Canadian Consortium for the Investigation of Cannabinoids. He said the safety and efficacy of marijuana are the two main areas where data is lacking. There is “a real need for Canadian clinical trials to answer many of the claims around medical cannabis,” he said, and not just for pain control. Marijuana is being used, for example, to treat multiple sclerosis symptoms, control nausea in cancer patients, ease anxiety, reduce epileptic seizures and relieve eye pressure in glaucoma.
The Canadian Medical Cannabis Industry Association, which represents the newly licensed producers, agrees there’s a need for more research. A number of its member companies have already begun research collaborations with universities or plan to do so. According to the industry association, 21 companies have received production licences, although only about a dozen are listed so far on Health Canada’s website of licensed producers. There is a backlog of some 1,000 applications by companies seeking approval to set up medical marijuana production facilities.
Prairie Plant Systems Inc. of Saskatoon, which produces medical cannabis through its subsidiary CanniMed, has approached two universities to conduct a clinical trial (the company is keeping the names of the two universities confidential while the researchers await the approval of their respective ethics committees). The trial will study the effects of medical cannabis on osteoarthritis of the knee, using several varieties of marijuana, and will explore the short-term safety of vaporized cannabis.
“We have four other clinical and pre-clinical programs upstream,” said Brent Zettl, the company president and CEO, adding that clinical research is the company’s top priority. “We are currently involved with six universities.” Mr. Zettl sees no shortage of medical research opportunities outside the current interest in pain management, predicting that within a decade it will be a hot research field for the neurosciences as well.
Another licensed producer, ABcann Medicinals Inc. in Napanee, Ontario, has research partnership agreements in place with the University of Guelph and Queen’s University. “We wouldn’t have seen this interest five years ago, since universities were loath to get into marijuana research,” said Steven Liss, vice-principal, research, at Queen’s. He said his university’s expertise in clinical trials could be an asset to the new industry.
“It’s no different than any other agricultural product that needs research,” said Dr. Liss, who noted that the research opportunities go far beyond the clinical and include biology, chemistry, engineering, bio-security, even agro-business. This could provide many student training and spin-off opportunities in the future, he said.
Lesley Campbell, an assistant professor in the department of chemistry and biology at Ryerson University who specializes in plant evolution, said it was one of her students who suggested that she consider marijuana research. “Steve Naraine, who graduated in May, had been a licensed producer before the law changed, and he asked if I was interested in researching the plant,” she explained. “It’s not an easy plant to grow and is quite complex. I could see many research possibilities.” She contacted Tweed Marijuana Inc., whose subsidiary is one of the new licensed producers, “and they responded immediately.”
Tweed, located in a former Hershey’s chocolate factory in Smiths Falls, Ontario, jumped at the chance to work with the Ryerson scientist on a six-month project to study the optimum environment and lighting for the company’s special grow chambers. Dr. Campbell received an Engage grant (whose purpose is to foster a new relationship between a company and an academic researcher) from NSERC, hired her former student as part of the research team, and sent him to Tweed to work on her study. It was scheduled for completion in September.
Tweed also has a research agreement with the University of Ottawa to study the medicinal properties of different cannabis varieties. Tweed is growing two dozen strains that it hopes will target specific medical complaints or conditions. Unlike the Ryerson research, which is being done at the company’s plant, the U of Ottawa research will take place in a clinical setting on campus, and that requires a longer approval process. This means researchers Cory Harris, Doug Johnson and John Arnason – respectively assistant professor, associate professor and full professor of biology – are doing preliminary work while waiting for permits.
“There are lots of knowledge gaps in the plant’s pharmacology,” said Dr. Harris. “This is an opportunity for researchers to make a big difference. Ultimately, I would like to see collaboration across the industry.”
Because of marijuana’s previous legal status, “there’s never been the opportunity before in Canada to perform this research … from clinical trials to mapping [biological] components,” said Mark Zekulin, executive vice-president of Tweed. “It’s exciting and important research.”
The International Pharmaceutical Academy was scheduled to hold a conference on marijuana for medical purposes in Toronto, Sept. 16-17. As well, Acadia University will host the 25th Annual International Cannabinoid Research Society conference in June 2015.