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Cannabis research is catching up on lost time as legalization expands both funding and access to the controversial plant.

Owing to a myriad of legal challenges that had prevented scientists from getting marijuana, the end of prohibition in Canada has vastly expanded interest in cannabis research and development. A month into legalization, scientists are pursuing goals ranging from saving millions of dollars in production costs, to creating precision-designed strains of cannabis capable of producing specific effects, to using elements of the cannabis plant to advance cancer research.

As marijuana cultivation becomes commodified, growers are investing huge sums to gain any edge that might help maintain their product margins. Canada’s largest cannabis producer by volume, Canopy Growth Corp., for example, nearly doubled its research and development spending from $810,000 in its 2017 fiscal year to $1.5-million in 2018.

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“This whole area is really decades – if not centuries – behind when you look at some of the work that needs to happen on the scientific side,” said Greg Engel, chief executive of Moncton-based producer Organigram Holdings Inc. “One of the biggest challenges we have faced in the industry has been all the restrictions on doing research on cannabis that have existed for so long.”

With those restrictions now largely gone, cannabis-related academia has turned vogue. The University of New Brunswick recently appointed Yang Qu, formerly a plant biochemist at Brock University, as its cannabis chair, believed to be the first such position of its kind in Canada. Days earlier, Organigram announced a three-year research partnership with the Moncton University.

“The idea here is to try and find ways to increase productivity in ways that we hope will be beneficial for the entire industry,” said David Joly, a Moncton University biology professor who is co-leading the research project. “We also want to develop innovative new tools to maybe even develop new plants.”

While agricultural staples such as wheat and canola have benefited from the efforts of thousands of scientists with billions of dollars in funding to grow bigger, faster and more disease resistant, cannabis is still mostly grown the same way it has in the wild. While some maintain cannabis should continue to be grown the so-called “natural” way, most experts argue the plant’s new legal, financial and regulatory reality demand improvement.

Prof. Joly explained that if his research makes it possible to shave just one day off the growing cycle, which is roughly three months, Organigram estimates that would save $3,000 per round in each of its 50 grow rooms. Assuming four full growth cycles a year, that amounts to $600,000 in annual savings.

“Even if we keep the same amount of growing time, we could also increase the amount of plant material that is produced, either with more buds or the same amount of buds but with a higher or more consistent level of THC,” he said.

Bruce Linton, co-CEO of Canopy Growth, says new research and better growing methods have led to a double-digit increase in yield over the past two years in the lead-up to legalization. These days, Canopy R&D is more focused on different ways to deliver cannabis to the end user. The company is researching the possibility of products such as beverages, powders, liquids and time released capsules.

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Still, there is the question of consistency – or lack thereof – of plant strains across different sources. While cannabis consumers are familiar with common strain names such as “purple kush,” no process exists that would allow growers to verify their version of purple kush as the same purple kush another grower might produce. Not only does that make effects for the end user inconsistent, but the lack of research on the genetic makeup of cannabis plants also makes it challenging for producers to secure patents for any proprietary strains they might grow.

That problem was at least partially solved earlier this month when Jon Page and his team published a paper in the academic journal Genome Research describing the first-ever complete genetic map of the cannabis plant. The University of British Columbia professor and CEO of Vancouver-based Anandia Labs was appointed chief science officer for Anandia’s parent company Aurora Cannabis Inc. last week.

“We used our new genome to work out some of the lingering questions around the biochemistry of cannabis on a genetic level [and] we actually found that the locus, the area of the genome where those genes reside, was drastically rearranged in hemp-type plants that produce more CBD versus plants that make THC, so that was pretty cool,” he said.

Most people familiar with cannabis have likely also heard about its two most common active ingredients or cannabinoids: tetrahydrocannabinol or THC, the intoxicating psychoactive component, and cannabidiol or CBD, which does not intoxicate the user but is known to reduce inflammation and anxiety. Yet, the newfound capacity for academic research has produced evidence of what Organigram’s Mr. Engel refers to as “minor cannabinoids.”

“There is an entourage effect that we are learning about as well,” he said. “It is not just about THC or CBD anymore, it is the minor cannabinoids and even terpenes have a role to play.”

Terpenes, the essential oils found in many plants including cannabis, were believed to affect the unique smell different strains produced. But more research has shown their role is far larger.

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“We now know that myrcene, one of the terpenes commonly found in the cannabis plant, has an effect on sleep,” Mr. Engel said. “So if we can identify the gene that produces myrcene we could overproduce it and create strains that are much more effective at becoming sleep aids than they are today.”

Next year, Vancouver-based Pascal Biosciences Inc. is hoping to begin human clinical trials in the United States for a new cancer treatment it developed through a partnership with the University of Washington. The treatment involves a mix of minor cannabinoids that initial studies have shown slows the growth of cancer sells 300 times more effectively than existing cannabis-based medications.

“There is a lot of work coming out now which is great, it is exactly what we wanted,” Prof. Page said. “A lot of very smart people are putting their minds to this plant [and] we’re proud that we’ve brought Canada into the lead again.”

With a file from Jessica Leeder

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