Thousands of new Utah patients are approved for an active medical cannabis card every month, but much remains unknown about how cannabis interacts with other medications, what other factors increase its risks, and even which health conditions medical cannabis is effective for as treatment.
The University of Utah Health, in partnership with the state, has launched a new research initiative to advance scientific understanding of medical cannabis and help patients and providers make informed health decisions about this increasingly common medication.
Valerie Ahanonu is the senior manager of the newly instated Center for Medical Cannabis Research. She says the center’s overall aim is to “look at the methodology behind how people are using cannabis and to create a translational approach to understanding its benefits and risks.”
To achieve this goal, the CMCR will use several complementary strategies:
- Supporting research about medical cannabis within the University of Utah and statewide.
- Improving patient, provider, and pharmacist education about cannabis risks and benefits.
- Working to instate an DEA-approved grow site for research-grade medical cannabis.
While the CMCR is based at U of U Health, it is a statewide institution that aims to foster collaborations between institutes of research and higher learning across Utah. The center will work in partnership with Utah State University, where Professor Bruce Bugbee has grown cannabis for research purposes since 2019. He and other plant scientists at USU also work with licensed growers in the state to answer questions about the challenges of producing pharmaceutical-grade cannabis.
The CMCR receives state funding annually to support its research directives. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, District 22 representative in the Utah House of Representatives, sponsored the bill that funds the CMCR. Dailey-Provost is also a graduate student in population health sciences at U of U Health and says that the research knowledge, expertise and existing infrastructure at U of U make it an ideal hub to support medical cannabis research statewide.
“This is one of the premier research institutions in the nation,” Dailey-Provost adds. “We couldn’t ask for a better place to keep the heart of a meaningful research program than the University of Utah.”
Discovery From Bench to Bedside
Jerry Cochran, the interim director for the CMCR, describes the spectrum of research the center will support as “bench to bedside.” Starting with pilot grants to help scientists begin projects on medical cannabis, the CMCR will promote research ranging from chemical characterization of the active components of cannabis through to late-stage clinical trials.
The steering committee of the CMCR is reviewing the existing science to find areas that are most in need of more research and has found a particular need for clinical trials to identify additional health conditions that could be alleviated — or aggravated — by cannabis use.
Dailey-Provost adds that much of the center’s research will focus on the medical cannabis products that are already available to Utah patients.
“We keep hearing from providers that they just don’t have enough information to comfortably recommend this for patients,” Dailey-Provost says. “What we ultimately need is reliable, evidence-based research information on the medication that we are already offering to patients in the state of Utah.”
Empowering Patients and Providers
Another major focus of the center is to improve education for both patients and providers, empowering them to make decisions that are scientifically sound.
“We want to ensure that people are having conversations that are research-based about how people utilize their medicine,” Ahanonu says.
The center will partner with the Genetics Science Learning Center at the University of Utah to create educational materials about medical cannabis. The Genetics Science Learning Center specializes in making engaging, clear materials, which will help reach patients and providers with the knowledge to make informed decisions.
The CMCR also plans to work with the Spencer S. Eccles Health Sciences Library to produce an accessible database of the most rigorous and up-to-date information in the field.
Supporting Growth Locally and Beyond
One significant hurdle to cannabis research is the limited supply of research-grade medical cannabis, especially from sites that are approved by the DEA. The CMCR aims to eliminate this bottleneck by supporting the establishment of a DEA-approved cannabis grow site for research.
Such a site would be especially important given the complexity of the plant itself as a medication. Cannabis contains multiple active ingredients, and the levels of each can vary hugely depending on the strain of the plant and the way it’s grown and processed.
A source for cannabis plants that can be used for NIH-funded research would allow scientists across Utah to start answering questions about how those differences affect human health.
Bugbee, director of USU’s Crop Physiology Lab, says that growing cannabis in open fields comes with the variables all farmers contend with: differences in soils even across a single field, pests, and changing temperatures and water availability, all of which affect cannabis quality. Indoor cultivation bypasses these issues and gives growers more control, but comes with different challenges, including a more humid environment that can increase molds and fungi.
Even when there is no visible evidence of mold or fungi on a bud, dangerous mycotoxins can sometimes be detected through testing. Cannabis produced by licensed growers is tested for pesticides, heavy metals and mycotoxins to protect consumers. But entire harvests have failed the tests and could not be sold, he says.
“Growing pharmaceutical-grade cannabis is a challenge, but it can consistently be achieved, ” Bugbee says. “We need to help growers produce high-quality plants for research so we can understand how to utilize this botanical medicine.”
He adds that helping growers consistently produce top-quality cannabis will reduce prices and eliminate the incentive for people to buy untested, potentially dangerous black-market products.
Cochran emphasizes that with all the hype — both positive and negative — that surrounds medical cannabis, it’s especially important for people to have a trustworthy source of evidence-based information.
“In certain circles, medical cannabis is being pushed as a cure-all, but I think it’s going to help certain things and not others,” Cochran says. “Science needs to take the lead in this area so that we continue to help people.”
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