Knowledge is key for the future of the Canadian cannabis industry
By Catarina Muia
It has been almost three years since the legalisation of cannabis in Canada, and there is still so much to research, discover, and understand in order to push the Canadian cannabis industry forward.
In mid-July, a major step forward was taken in the ability to perform cannabis research in British Columbia, with the announcement of a $3.3-million grant for Langara College’s Applied Science for the Canadian Cannabis Industry program. Two million dollars was given by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and $1.3 million from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation.
With this five-year grant, Langara College looks to fund research projects focused on plant genomics and metabolomics, cellular response to cannabinoids, optimization of processing, and the use of nanoparticles to deliver bioactive compounds.
Curious to know what, in particular, the College is hoping to find in its research, Catarina Muia sat down with Kelly Sveinson, chair of Langara College’s Applied Research Centre, during a recent episode of Grow Opportunity: The Podcast.
As a researcher, Sveinson has studied the production and use of biochar for its potential ecological benefit, including contaminated water remediation. Additionally, he has expertise in the analytical chemistry of natural products.
In 2018, Sveinson, along with fellow researchers and biology instructors at Langara College, Dave Anderson and Ji Yang, were awarded $200,000 from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council for their project focused on applying biochemistry tools to support the craft brewing industry in B.C. This work culminated in the identification of several feral hops varietal of commercial value that are currently under evaluation in an agricultural trial.
Today, Sveinson is focused on projects investigating technical challenges faced by the cannabis industry. As an instructor in the chemistry and environmental studies departments, he has taught 11 different courses, impacting thousands of students at Langara College. Sveinson holds a Master’s of Science from the University of B.C., and a Bachelor’s of Science from the University of Waterloo.
Grow Opportunity: How did Langara’s Applied Science for the Canadian Cannabis Industry program first come about?
Kelly Sveinson: At Langara College, one of our goals is to contribute to the community here in B.C., as well as Canada in general. We have some really strong faculty, capable students, and excellent facilities, so we thought that focusing a bit of our activity on research would be a logical step. The fact that we have access to federal funding to support applied research on a competitive basis, led us to this path. We identified biochemistry and bioinformatics as areas of strength here at the college; faculty and students are really strong in that area and because of this, we’ve been able to attract some funding.
You mentioned the hops project; as some may know, hops and cannabis are botanical cousins, in a sense. So those skills we developed while investigating hops and its biochemistry translated really nicely into cannabis research, and we received our Health Canada Research Licence in 2019. After doing some preliminary work with cannabis, we realized that there’s so much to discover and so many questions that need answering; it’s an area with a lot of potential for us, which we are still really excited about.
After putting together an ambitious funding proposal, we put together a small coalition of industry partners to put forward the proposal after a federal funding opportunity came up, and we were delighted to find we were funded for that. Now, we are in the very early stages of ramping that up.
GO: Additional to the $3.3-million grant, the College is receiving $400,000 toward research from industry partners Pure SunFarms, Ascension Sciences, and NextLeaf Solutions. How were those partners chosen?
KS: We wanted partners who are first, really solid on a fundamental basis and have long-term visions for the industry, and second are tech-forward, have the vision to see new potential, and look to contribute to innovation. They are also companies that seem to look beyond their own objectives, evaluate the Canadian cannabis industry with a broad lens, and see the value of building the industry by educating young people with the necessary skills and driving science-based knowledge. Over the course of the five-year program, we will certainly look to increase the number of partners we have.
GO: So many reports and studies have already been done about cannabis, and from the findings, it often looks like cannabis is a ‘miracle plant’, helping people cope with physical, mental, or emotional pain or trauma. For Langara College, what will be the main focus of the research being done and where, specifically, will the funds be going?
KS: We do have some defined areas we want to explore. I think first, it’s important to note that our work is limited to ‘bench science,’ which is exclusive to animals and humans. We don’t have the capacity to investigate how cannabis or cannabis products impact humans in a direct way, as this is a very complex endeavour. At Langara, we’re interested in the biochemistry of the plant per se, and leveraging that knowledge. In terms of the funds, that will largely go to faculty and student researchers. It will also give us the ability to hire some dedicated technicians and importantly, acquire some advanced instrumentation.
In terms of where we intend to do research, we can group that into three main themes. First, we want to look at what’s in cannabis. That sounds really simple and has been done in all kinds of ways, but we’re interested, in particular, in some of the compounds that haven’t been investigated as thoroughly.
We know THC and CBD and the relationship between the two, as well as the way the plant grows, is pretty well established. But we want to consider the less-studied compounds of the plant, which requires advanced instrumentation to look at. It’s important to establish strong methodologies for looking at these compounds that are present in lesser quantities in the plants, and relate those to production variables such as greenhouse conditions or processing techniques. We’re also interested in how those compounds can be isolated. Like I mentioned, people are familiar with THC and CBD, but there are other compounds such as Delta 8 THC, CBG, THCB, and of course all the other dozens of terpenes in the plant are really worth investigating.
Second, is then looking at the genetic basis for the production of these compounds. My partner, Dr. Ji Yang has done some interesting work on this, and certainly in the pre-legalization days, the plants were given cool names like ‘White Widow,’ and so on. But he found that specimens with the same labels weren’t the same genetically. It would be interesting to sort that out in the context of the legal market. The relationship, then, between the compounds of interest for our industry partners, as well as the compound genetics is something we would like to explore and sort out the business of varietal designation.
Further, this would give us an opportunity to target particular compounds through breeding-type studies. One of our primary investigators in this program will begin looking at incorporating some of these compounds into nanoparticles. We’re not just talking about particle compounds of interest or formulations of different combinations of compounds, but also ways to deliver them into people. Incorporating these compounds into nanoparticles is one of those ways. This is important in Cannabis 2.0 products, but also in the health and wellness context.
Finally, we want to know if there’s a way we can investigate how these compounds interact, or how bioactive they are, without using human subjects. To do this, our researchers can take cell models and expose them to compounds, which will allow them to observe the reaction of the cell, and begin cataloguing the relationship between the compounds and their bio activity, without using humans or animals. So overall, we are looking at what compounds are of interest, how they can be delivered, how we can put a technical or precise analysis on which compounds have promise, and then how we can grow plants that contain these compounds.
GO: Cannabis cultivation and Cannabis 2.0 will continue to gain traction and I’m sure will continue to grow. What do you see for the cannabis industry, in the next few years?
KS: It’s going to be dynamic. Things are going to happen faster as there are numerous groups working hard on this tremendous capability. There are certainly a few associations that will push for the sharing and drive of industry-wide innovation. For example, related to legalization, one of the interesting outcomes has been public perceptions. For some people, when something is illegal, they mentally shut it down. When it’s legal, all of a sudden people are open to it. Funny, isn’t it? I think public perception of cannabis is in a transition phase.
Earlier you mentioned the power of the plant in the context of pain or anxiety; I think people will see the plant as a wellness product. So many interesting studies are underway in reducing dependence on pharmaceuticals and benzodiazepines, which is really exciting. I think in the future, we’ll be looking at these compounds and their synergistic relationships and the power of terpenes with respect to cannabinoids.
A big focus will be on how the different classes, different individuals, and types of compounds are interacting, as well as how they are impacting people. We will continue to see gains and growth in the understanding of the relationship between all these variables and what is produced, which plants you select, grow, and how to efficiently extract those compounds of interest. I think by really understanding all of the fascinating compounds in the plant, then determining the combinations will be very powerful. The next step will be to gather consumer feedback, which will help the industry to become more sophisticated.