A green future

Keeping cannabis research on track during the pandemic
Image by Owen Egan / Joni Dufour.

This spring, as the pandemic brought cities to a standstill and forced people to shelter in place to avoid the spread of the deadly contagion, scientists around the world shut down their labs and moved their offices to their homes. Ongoing projects were ramped down, put on hold—or in some cases, terminated—and many researchers pivoted to studying COVID-19 and the virus causing the rapidly spreading disease, SARS-CoV-2.

At the McGill Research Centre for Cannabis, the pandemic meant reducing activities to a minimum. “COVID-19 certainly impacted some of the activities that we hoped to have through the Centre,” says Dr. Carolyn Baglole, the director of the Centre and an associate professor in the Department of Medicine at McGill University.

Prior to the pandemic, the Centre’s activities had been expanding—with cannabis-focused research programs spanning the domains of agriculture and plant science, biomedical science, and socioeconomics and law. “We still have so much to learn about cannabis,” Baglole says. “We need to keep this research on track so we can further the science and better inform policymakers and the public.”

When Baglole started her scientific career, she didn’t plan on studying cannabis. The focus of her research was chronic lung disease and its association with cigarette smoke—but when Canada legalized marijuana in 2018, Baglole immediately recognized how important it would be to study the effects of inhaled cannabis as well.

To Baglole, it was clear that scientists knew little about the impact of cannabis on the body—and its effects on lung and immune function when it was inhaled. To deal with this critical knowledge gap, Baglole and her colleagues developed a research program centered on understanding the effects of cannabis use on the lungs and immune system.

This is now one of the many ongoing projects at the Centre. Currently, it brings together just under 60 faculty members hailing from six different disciplines—health sciences, agricultural and environmental sciences, law, science, education, and management. Baglole expects that number to continue to grow, since there are others not yet part of the Centre who are considering implementing cannabis into their own research as well.

“Most of us now doing cannabis-related research didn’t start our careers doing research on cannabis—many of us are incorporating cannabis into our research activities by applying the knowledge and tools that we have into this new field,” Baglole says. “The full legalization of cannabis in Canada has really opened the floodgates for cannabis research in our country.”

Those floodgates were temporarily closed shut during the early days of the pandemic. In recent months, however, research activities at the Centre have steadily regained momentum. With policies and procedures to safely work during a pandemic in place, scientists have been able to reopen their labs and restart experiments.

As research activities resume, Baglole hopes that the Cannabidiol (CBD) Research Partnership Fund, which was launched by the Association québécoise de l’industrie du cannabis (AQIC) and the Centre in October will generate further interest and support for cannabis research. Current funds will go toward a single CBD project chosen by the Centre, but the Fund remains open to interested parties who wish to help finance future CBD studies as well.

While there are two well-characterized compounds in cannabis that have medical potential, CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), many scientists have chosen to focus on CBD since it does not cause the psychotropic effects (the “high”) associated with the drug. Baglole notes that the emerging evidence suggesting that CBD may help tame the immune system has also drawn the attention of researchers seeking to develop new anti-inflammatory therapeutics.

“I hope that the CBD Research Partnership Fund has a feed-forward effect for CBD research at McGill,” Baglole says. “I hope it shows the high-quality work that can come out of this kind of research partnership and attracts additional funding so that we’re able to support more cutting-edge research projects.”

The study of cannabis is becoming increasingly important as legalization occurs in many parts of the world. In the United States, for example, the recent election brought the number of states where medical marijuana is legal up to 35, with 15 states also accepting its recreational use. “More countries are embracing cannabis, particularly for medical purposes, and want the information that can better inform their citizens on its potential use,” Baglole says. With many well-established research programs, Canada is well poised to continue as a leader in cannabis-related science, she adds. “As long as we can continue that, I think we will continue to play a prominent role on the world stage.”

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