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Cannabis hasn’t always been formally welcomed on college campuses. But starting this fall, hemp (which contains 0.3 percent or less THC) is getting its very own lab at CSU, full of Ph.D.’s in white coats and glasses.
The Panacea Life Sciences Cannabinoid Research Center opened last month to unlock the treasures of cannabis sativa—just not the familiar marijuana strain usually found clouding up dorm rooms and football games. While hemp is low in THC—the psychoactive chemical in cannabis that produces a high—it’s rich in the famous elixir cannabidiol, aka CBD, now beloved by grandmas with aching joints and children who experience seizures. Researchers believe there’s so much more to discover. “We want to find the answers to the mysteries,” says Melissa Reynolds, the College of Natural Sciences’s associate dean of research and head of the lab. “We want to be the mystery solvers.”
Since cannabis sativa was legalized statewide in 2012, Colorado’s universities have grown increasingly hospitable: Colorado State University Pueblo offers a Bachelor of Science in Cannabis Biology and Chemistry; University of Colorado Boulder studies a few aspects of sativa, from its genetics to how weed can improve the lives of those suffering from diseases; and the University of Denver specializes in cannabis law.
Now it’s CSU’s turn to catch up. The new center was funded by a $1.5 million gift from CSU alumna Leslie Buttorf, founder and CEO of Panacea Plant Sciences in Golden. Housed in one area of the chemistry building, the lab is stuffed full of gadgets like mass spectrometers and chromatographs to help CSU students study the cannabinoids in hemp.
One under-explored aspect of hemp that the center is trying to figure out is the exact volume of cannabinoids a typical plant might have. We already know about the CBD contained within, but many molecules are so sparse in hemp that they can barely be separated out enough for researchers to work with. Yet these orphan molecules might be highly valuable.
To wit, CBD-V is a slight variation on the CBD molecule that could have dramatically different effects. For one, CBD-V could turn out to be an appetite suppressant—the opposite of the munchies. But many researchers across the U.S. can’t extract enough CBD-V from plants using standard tech to effectively study it.
The center’s new tech changes that, says Jamie Cuchiaro, a Ph.D. student who manages the day-to-day operations of the lab and researches the way organic molecules in hemp interact with metals. “There are 120 cannabinoids,” Cuchiaro says. Many other cannabinoid molecules in hemp, from cannabigerol (which fights inflammation and nausea) to cannabinol (a sort of sedative), might be goldmines for new medicines. Says Cuchiaro: “The world is our oyster.” She mentions that the center’s advanced machines can isolate CBD-V from the plant in large enough quantities so that eventually the lab can hold clinical trials on its effects. If CBD-V turns out to be a natural appetite suppressant, it’ll be a boon to medicine.
CSU currently offers hemp-related courses, and several undergraduate students are working on projects in the lab, as well as two graduate students. Cuchiaro believes the new center will attract new students. The knowledge gained in the lab is highly marketable to a growing CBD industry and will prepare students for career paths that were never before possible. Cuchiaro, who is on track to graduate this summer, was contemplating a future in renewable energy, but dabbling in cannabinoids means she’ll have skills that will be valuable in a second expanding industry. “More doors are opening because of this center,” she says.
The lab instantly gives CSU the tools to become a worldwide leader in cannabinoid research, providing valuable knowledge to the CBD industry, which brought in $1.6 billion in revenue nationwide in 2021, according to a report from Statista. In Colorado alone, the figure was $150 million in 2019.
Panacea sells hemp-derived oils and tinctures for humans and pets. Like many CBD companies, Panacea Life Sciences is growing like a weed. It currently owns a hemp farm on the Western Slope, employs 35 people, and opened kiosks this summer at Denver International Airport, as well as Park Meadows and Cherry Creek malls, to sell cannabinoids—though not THC. In 2020, the company made about $10 million in sales. Potential growth lies ahead. As CSU publishes its findings, Panacea will share the intellectual property rights as a way to possibly bring new cannabinoid products to market.
Students and faculty at the lab have already begun to spearhead a few projects and collaborate on others—about 20 studies across various disciplines that include studying cannabinoids for alzheimers, joint pain, and stomach ailments, as well as a first-of-its-kind veterinarian study on cannabinoid effects in dogs and horses.
For Buttorf, Panacea Plant Sciences’ CEO, this is just the beginning. “We’re just scratching the surface of all the different cannabinoids and what they can do.”