When Steve Newmaster’s parents began complaining of joint pains, the University of Guelph botanist had a ready solution: Why didn’t they try cannabis for relief? Both in their 80s, Carol and Vern weren’t sure at first. It took a bit of coaxing and then some creative time in the couple’s Cambridge, Ont., kitchen to get the ingredient mix right. “I cooked the buds in a crock pot with coconut oil and gave it to them as a topical to rub it on their joints,” says Newmaster. Today his parents can walk for kilometres pain-free, and both have lost weight. “They’re feeling really good. It’s changed their life,” he says. “I go to their place, we have dinner and we cook cannabis.”
From plant biologists to food scientists to veterinary and human health researchers to psychologists and sociologists, several dozen faculty members have already made the University a leading centre for investigating varied aspects of cannabis, from its breeding and cultivation to its uses and health impacts. And with numerous graduate students working in research labs, and many more students snapping up spots in new cannabis production courses, U of G has become a key source of skilled workers desperately needed by an emerging industry. “There will be a need for specialists just like any other greenhouse industry,” says Rene Van Acker, dean of the Ontario Agricultural College. Referring to the college’s longtime research and teaching support for agrifood crops in Ontario and Canada, he adds, “It makes perfect sense for us to be doing this, it’s what we’ve always done.”
“WE ARE ONE OF THE TOP HORTICULTURAL UNIVERSITIES IN THE WORLD IN CONTROLLED ENVIRONMENT PLANT PRODUCTION. WE CAN REALLY HELP THE CANNABIS INDUSTRY.” – Prof. Youbin Zheng
In what has been called the “dawn of the cannabis era,” Canada in 2018 became the first G7 country to legalize recreational cannabis nationwide (cannabis products have been legal for medical purposes for many years). This fall will bring federal regulations for edible cannabis sales. The Canadian cannabis market – medical, illegal and legal recreational products – was expected to generate up to $7 billion in sales in 2019, including up to $1.79 billion for medicinal uses and some $4 billion from the legal recreational market, according to a 2018 Deloitte report. What was mostly an illicit pursuit has become mainstream big business, with some 150 licensed producers now operating in Canada.
The market is there: what those businesses need now are hard science and trained workers. Both recreational and medical cannabis suppliers need to produce a reliable, consistent product that meets exacting quality control standards set by Health Canada. From basic production questions to answering concerns about health impacts, huge gaps exist in our understanding of cultivating and employing the plant, says Prof. Youbin Zheng, School of Environmental Sciences (SES): “Cannabis growers out there need knowledge and technology to efficiently produce high-quality, high-yield plants. Many institutions are trying to jump on the bandwagon without first-hand knowledge about plants.”
$7 BILLION – 2019 Canadian cannabis market (projected)
To get that expertise, more of those producers are turning to the University of Guelph. Much of the research centres around SES, where Zheng and Prof. Mike Dixon have long studied plant production in U of G’s Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility (CESRF). Tweak systems designed for inhospitable growing conditions from Canada’s North to Mars, and you’ve got a platform for meeting the needs of cannabis greenhouse growers, says Zheng: “We are one of the top horticultural universities in the world in controlled environment plant production. We can really help the cannabis industry.”
That industry can certainly use the help. Much of what we know about producing cannabis is based on anecdotes and poorly designed experiments, says Zheng. In recent years, U of G researchers have pioneered studies of cannabis production basics, including work on irrigation, propagation, substrates, fertilization and lighting now being employed by licensed growers in Canada, including Canopy, Up Cannabis and VIVO Cannabis. Former grad student Dave Hawley looked at how light affects cannabis bud quality and yield – a pressing concern for producers growing indoors under artificial lighting. Since completing his PhD in 2018, he has worked on LED (light-emitting diode) systems for the horticultural industry as a senior scientist with Fluence in Austin, Texas. “For all compounds in cannabis, there are ways to up- or downregulate based on light spectra,” says Hawley.
Light quality affects production of cannabis phytochemicals, from medicinal cannabinoids (CBD) and flavonoids to psychoactive compounds (THC). Working with VIVO in Napanee, Ont., U of G environmental scientists are now mapping out relationships between such parameters as light quality and production of those medicinal compounds – effectively producing what Dixon calls a “recipe” for making desired chemicals. “Just about every cannabis strain – and there are thousands – responds differently to controlled environment conditions,” he says. “There is so much we don’t know about the chemistry, biology, the pharmaceutical applications and just how to grow it so it generates a consistent profile of medicinal compounds.”
Adds SES Prof. Tom Graham, “You can manipulate the plant environment and control production of THC and CBD and other phytochemicals with light colour or even where and how you shine the light. If you’re selling the cannabis bud for direct consumption, it matters where in the plant it came from.” A three-time U of G environmental biology grad and a NASA research fellow, he was named this year as the PhytoGro Chair in Medicinal Phyto Substances. Under that five-year, $1-million position supported by PhytoGro Canada, he’s also studying how to thwart fungal and bacterial pathogens, prevent chemical buildup and maintain correct nutrient balances in closed production systems for cannabis and other medicinal plants.
Ensuring clean plants free of pathogens is part of the research focus of plant agriculture professor Max Jones. In a secure room, he’s using tissue culture to grow seedlings in artificial liquid or gel media inside ranks of clear plastic containers arrayed on shelves under LED lights. Jones is currently the only U of G faculty member licensed to grow cannabis in tissue culture on campus; other University researchers conduct their experiments on the premises of licensed growers. “The industry needs a continual supply of healthy, clean, reliable plants,” he says. “You want to ensure you’re not transporting pests and disease.” He’s also working with Avicanna, a pharmaceutical company in Toronto, to help breed plants more efficiently, produce rare cannabinoids and share micropropagation and tissue culture methods with the company’s cultivation site in Colombia. In a project with Canopy, he’s pioneered propagation of plants from flowers instead of vegetative tissue – a method that would also help make propagation more efficient and reliable. Working with seedlings in Jones’s facility, master’s student Melissa Moher is studying how photoperiod, or the duration of light exposure, affects flowering. “Growers can manipulate the amount of light to quicken production and get more production cycles in a year,” she says.
Plant genetics research intersects with Newmaster’s botany work in the Department of Integrative Biology. He has long been involved in using DNA barcoding – a genetic method developed at U of G – to identify and authenticate plant ingredients used in companies’ natural health products. He’s now bringing the same scientific rigour to the cannabis industry, whose colloquial strain names (“Boaty McBoatface,” “Girl Scout Cookies”) bear no relation to formal plant taxonomy. Through a new company called Cannabis Barcode Project funded by major licensed producers in Canada, he’s assembling a library of genes and chemical metabolites, or active ingredients, coded for by those genes. That will help standardize production, ensuring consistency for consumers. Newmaster expects his work will also benefit breeders. “Cannabis producers lack a breeding system like corn, soy or wheat. Those breeding systems need to come into cannabis,” he says.
In an example of targeting specific traits, U of G researchers this year were the first to uncover how the cannabis plant makes specific pain-relieving molecules. Profs. Tariq Akhtar and Steven Rothstein, both in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, used biochemistry and genomics to learn about two flavonoids long known for their anti-inflammatory properties. They’re now working with a Toronto-based company that has licensed a U of G patent to scale up production outside of the cannabis plant. “There’s clearly a need to develop alternatives for relief of acute and chronic pain that go beyond opioids,” says Akhtar. “These molecules are non-psychoactive, and they target the inflammation at the source, making them ideal painkillers.”
“ I THINK THE UNIVERSITY OF GUELPH IS ONE OF THE UNIVERSITIES THAT IS GOING TO DO SOME OF THE BEST RESEARCH IN THE FIELD.” – Alumna Melanie Pearson
Studies of health aspects of cannabis extend across campus. Anti-nausea treatments for cancer patients may result from work by psychology professor Linda Parker. In 2018, she showed how a nausea trigger in the brain is suppressed by cannabidiol. She’s now looking at a precursor compound in cannabis that may be up to 1,000 times more effective than CBD itself. “We think it might be a really useful treatment for nausea in chemotherapy,” says Parker, author of the book Cannabinoids and the Brain. She’s also working on a major four-country project looking at a natural cannabinoid that may protect the brain against nicotine and opiate addiction. Both projects involve Israeli scientist Raphael Mechoulam, who discovered THC, CBD and the brain’s endocannabinoid system; he received an honorary doctorate from U of G in 2018.
In the Department of Biomedical Sciences, Prof. Jibran Khokhar looks at connections between cannabis use and mental health problems, particularly among adolescents. Rates of cannabis use in Canada are among the highest in the world; more than one quarter of 11- to 15-year-olds reported using cannabis in 2013, the highest rate among developed countries. Khokhar’s animal studies show that THC alters reward and motivation behaviours, and that adolescent exposure can lead to changes in brain circuitry and behavioural effects in adulthood. Referring to brain circuit changes in a study published in the Canadian Journal of Addiction, he said results of THC exposure “look like changes in the brain of someone with acute psychosis or schizophrenia.”
He says often people hail cannabis as a wonder drug that can cure everything; others view it as a danger. “We don’t have much middle ground, which is where I want to be,” says Khokhar, explaining that his work might help inform policy and discussions with patients and families. That’s also a primary motivator for psychology professor and U of G president Franco Vaccarino, whose addiction studies have led him to call for protection of vulnerable populations under Canada’s legislative framework. Looking at Statistics Canada’s National Cannabis Survey – the first national survey to track changes in use patterns and behaviour before and after 2018 – sociology professor Andrew Hathaway is studying the impacts of legalization. That research will help particularly in improving public health and safety, including learning more about effects of cannabis use on driving and wider health and mental-health concerns.
Widening the health lens, clinical studies professor Sam Hocker is studying cannabis for treating bladder cancer in dogs. (Currently no products are licensed in Canada for treating animals; industry groups are lobbying for the use of veterinary medical cannabis.) By learning about the potential anti-cancer properties of cannabidiol, he hopes to help point the way to alternative pet therapies. Hocker also says working with dogs“could ultimately help in designing potential therapeutic options for the more aggressive form of bladder cancer in humans.”
What U of G researchers are learning from their diverse studies also finds its way into teaching on campus. In SES, Zheng will teach a new cannabis production course in winter 2020 within the existing environmental science degree program. Cannabis is also highlighted in an existing course in controlled environment systems. The school is now working on a new graduate level course on the topic.
Commercial and home growers from professionals to home enthusiasts are the target of a new online course being launched this fall at the University of Guelph.“ Cannabis Production” is being offered as part of a new cannabis specialization in U of G’s existing horticulture certificate program. The course is full, with 60 students enrolled this fall. Course designer and instructor BrandonYep is an SES master’s student who studies ways to improve aquaponics (using fish farming wastes for plant nutrients) for indoor growing of plants, including medicinal cannabis. He will teach growing basics, including lighting and irrigation systems, growing media, pest and disease management, and post-harvest curing and packaging.
A second online course in cannabis regulations and quality assurance will begin in January. The new offerings will be among only a few cannabis production courses available so far at universities and colleges in Canada.
As a research and teaching hub, U of G is increasingly viewed as a source of highly qualified grads for Canada’s growing cannabis industry. Melanie Pearson studied environmental science with Zheng for her master’s degree in 2016. She was director of aquaponics with Green Relief in Puslinch, Ont., for three years; she is now pursuing opportunities in aquaponics for cannabis and food security. She says the industry needs people skilled in growing cannabis to exacting specifications for health applications. “I think the University of Guelph is one of the universities that is going to do some of the best research in the field,” she says.
Deron Caplan is director of plant science with The Flowr Corp., a licensed medical and recreational producer in Kelowna, B.C. For his PhD in environmental science completed in spring 2018, he worked on improving cannabis cultivation techniques for growers. He says the industry needs experts in breeding and cultivation methods to meet Health Canada requirements and produce higher- quality products than those on the black market. “Developing ways for licensed cannabis growers to improve the quality of their product and keep it clean is a big challenge,” says Caplan. He was head-hunted by the company while still a grad student. “There’s a shortage of qualified people,” he says.
“THE INDUSTRY IS STILL RUNNING ON ANECDOTAL INFORMATION. U OF G IS THE ONLY PLACE THAT CAN DO WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE.” – Prof. Mike Dixon
When he interviewed at the company, his partner, Stephanie Masina, accompanied him out west. She was hired by Flowr as well. A master’s grad in the Department of Population Medicine specializing in epidemiology, she now works as the company’s R&D manager. She’s planning programs to test Flowr products for use in clinical trials for pain relief, sleep and wound healing; she says the company is also interested in food applications. Working at a new R&D facility being built by the company, she says, “We have so much more to learn about the plant and its human health applications. It’s an exciting time to be in the industry.”
Back at U of G, plans are under way to connect cannabis research and teaching in a proposed bricks-and-mortar centre on campus. The Guelph Centre for Medicinal Plant Research would bring together researchers in cannabis, horticultural production and integrated pest management. Says Dixon: “We cover the waterfront. The research centre will be a venue for licence-holders in Canada to access independent, objective science research to demonstrate what they want. The industry is still running on anecdotal information. The University of Guelph is the only place that can do what needs to be done.”
Among the roughly 30 prospective members across campus is Newmaster. He says a dedicated centre would help connect various research interests in cannabis, sparking the kinds of discussions that may lead to new collaborations for projects and products.
He says one of the biggest markets for cannabis products today is middle-aged and elderly people with joint pain – the very market that includes his parents back home in Cambridge. That also includes Newmaster, whose interests in ethnobotany around the world helped lead him to this field.
It was a long-time colleague from India who introduced him to “golden milk,” a mixture of turmeric, milk, honey and pepper. Adding cannabis makes a great sleep elixir, says Newmaster. The concoction also helps ease his own joint pain, allowing him to keep up his marathon and mountaineering pursuits. While in California, the 52-year-old hiked the Palisade Glacier, a 20-mile trek to reach the summit 12,000 feet up. “The 30-year-olds could hardly keep up with me, and I attribute that to cannabis.”