After decades of prohibition, there is still much to learn about cannabis compared to other botanicals. Overwhelming evidence of this was presented at Genome BC’s 17thAnnual Genomics Forum “Cannabis: Cultivating Knowledge, Growing Innovation.” Canada is the first G7 country to legalize cannabis for adult recreational use. This has created a sense of urgency to understanding more about the properties and applications of cannabinoids (the chemical compounds found in cannabis) and has spurred an expanded interest in cannabis research and development.
“This is Canada’s moment to lead” said Dr. Jonathan Page, founder of Anandia Labs and now Chief Science Officer at Aurora Cannabis, speaking about cannabis innovation at the Forum. However, Page points out that most research to date has focused on identifying the harms versus the benefits of cannabis. “There’s been a boom in interest toward commercialization and intellectual property in cannabis. Despite the vast amount of interest, we have basic research needs that must be met. There are juicy intellectual problems about this fascinating plant that will increase our understanding as well as lead to commercial application” said Page, who believes one of the biggest roadblocks to overcoming this gap has been the slow pace of cannabis licencing in Canada.
Research in the United States has its own unique challenges. Dr. Nolan Kane, an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado, advised Forum participants to use extreme caution when reviewing the findings of US based cannabis research. “There are long standing conflicts between the general knowledge about cannabis and what’s been able to be validated in the medical literature because the research is mostly based on a product that is so different than what people are actually consuming.” Due to federal regulations and prohibition, all marijuana used for US research is provided by the University of Mississippi through the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). The room was filled with gasps when Kane showed a visual example of the research grade cannabis US researchers had to work with, compared to the commercially available product. Recent research out of Colorado found that cannabinoid levels in US research grade marijuana supplied by NIDA did not align with commercially available Cannabis from Colorado, Washington and California.
One of the more eye-opening moments of the day, came when Dr. Sean Myles, Associate Professor, University Research Chair, Agriculture Genetic Diversity, Dalhousie University presented his findings that expose how cannabis labeling practices poorly capture genetic reality. Myles’ lab has analyzed over 150 different strains of cannabis and compared the genetics to what is reported on the packaging. His research shows a “moderate correlation” between the genetic structure of marijuana strains and their reported sativa and indica ancestry, however, the genetic distance between samples did not provide a meaningful representation of how they were identified on the packaging. Myles said that, “Unlike every other agricultural crop in the world, you can’t do this. When you go to the grocery store to buy apples, growers can’t throw Macintosh apples into the bin that says Honey Crisp and charge four times the price.”
Genomics can aid in the area of cannabis research for enhanced production efficiency, the creation of precision bred varieties of cannabis capable of producing specific benefits and help understand individual variability in cannabis response. Legalization has introduced a whole new spectrum of cannabis opportunities beyond medical applications creating an urgent need for research to address gaps in knowledge on the effects and safety of cannabis as a whole — important areas of research that will help drive cannabis regulation.
“Participation and dialogue across multiple disciplines is needed to advance research that will increase understanding and knowledge of the benefits cannabis can provide.” said Catalina Lopez-Correa, Genome BC’s Chief Scientific Officer and VP, Sectors. “Bringing people together toward finding solutions is one of Genome BC’s key strengths. Our Annual Genomics Forum provides a unique opportunity to make and facilitate those connections.”
The Forum held in May is Genome BC’s premier annual scientific event. This year it brought together over 200 participants from the academic community with partners in industry, to explore the subject of cannabis from the unique perspectives of human health, regulatory and legal aspects, commercialization and the agricultural science behind the plant itself.
If you want to go beyond these highlights, each session was recorded and is available to view on Genome BC’s YouTube channel.