A New Middle at CSU Goals to Unlock the Secrets and techniques of CBD

PhD students Jamie Cuchiaro and Maddie Roach and Professor Melissa Reynolds from the Panacea Life Sciences Cannabinoid Research Center. Image courtesy Colorado State University


The recently opened laboratory at Colorado State University in Fort Collins will take cannabinoids out of the dorm room and place them under a microscope.

November 22, 2021

Cannabis was not always officially welcomed in universities. But starting this fall, hemp (which contains 0.3 percent or less THC) will get its own laboratory at the CSU, full of PhD students 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 strain of marijuana that can usually be found in dorms and soccer games. While low in THC – the psychoactive chemical in cannabis that creates a high – hemp is rich in the famous elixir cannabidiol, also known as CBD, which is now loved by grandmothers with sore joints and children with seizures. Researchers believe there is a lot more to discover. “We want to find answers to the riddles,” says Melissa Reynolds, assistant dean of research and laboratory director at the College of Natural Sciences. “We want to be the puzzle solver.”

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Since the national legalization of cannabis sativa in 2012, the universities of Colorado have become increasingly hospitable: Colorado State University Pueblo offers a Bachelor of Science degree in cannabis biology and chemistry; The University of Colorado Boulder studies some aspects of sativa, from its genetics to improving the lives of people suffering from diseases; and the University of Denver specializes in cannabis law.

Now it is the turn of the CSU to catch up. The new center was funded by a $ 1.5 million donation from CSU alumna Leslie Buttorf, founder and CEO of Panacea Plant Sciences in Golden. Located in an area of ​​the chemistry building, the lab is crammed with equipment like mass spectrometers and chromatographs that help CSU students study the cannabinoids in hemp.

One under-researched aspect of hemp that the center is trying to figure out is the exact amount of cannabinoids a typical plant might have. We already know about the CBD in it, but many molecules are so sparse in hemp that they can hardly be separated enough for researchers to work with. But these orphaned molecules could be very valuable.

In fact, CBD-V is a slight variation on the CBD molecule that can have dramatically different effects. For one, CBD-V could be an appetite suppressant – the opposite of nibbles. But many researchers in the US cannot extract enough CBD-V from plants using standard technology to study it effectively.

The center’s new technology changes that, says Jamie Cuchiaro, a Ph.D. Student who runs the daily operations of the laboratory researching how organic molecules in hemp interact with metals. “There are 120 cannabinoids,” says Cuchiaro. Many other cannabinoid molecules in hemp, from cannabigerol (which fights inflammation and nausea) to cannabinol (a type of sedative) could be goldmines for new drugs. Cuchiaro says, “The world is our oyster.” She mentions that the center’s advanced machinery can isolate CBD-V from the plant in sufficient quantities that the laboratory can eventually conduct clinical studies on its effects. If CBD-V turns out to be a natural appetite suppressant, it will be a boon to medicine.

The CSU currently offers hemp-related courses, several bachelor students are working on projects in the laboratory and two doctoral students. Cuchiaro believes the new center will attract new students. The knowledge gained in the laboratory is very marketable for a growing CBD industry and prepares students for career paths that were never possible before. Cuchiaro, who is well on her way to graduation this summer, was contemplating a future in renewable energy, but experimenting with cannabinoids means she has skills that will be of value in a second expanding industry. “This center opens more doors,” she says.

The lab immediately gives the CSU the tools to become a global leader in cannabinoid research, and provides valuable knowledge for the CBD industry, which will generate $ 1.6 billion nationwide in 2021, according to a report by Statista Brought in sales. In Colorado alone it 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 Western Slope, employs 35 people, and opened kiosks at Denver International Airport and the Park Meadows and Cherry Creek shopping malls this summer to sell cannabinoids – albeit not THC. In 2020 the company had sales of around $ 10 million. Potential growth is imminent. If the CSU publishes its results, Panacea will share the intellectual property rights to potentially bring new cannabinoid products to market.

Students and faculty at the laboratory have already started moving forward with a number of projects and collaborating on others – around 20 studies in different disciplines that include cannabinoids for Alzheimer’s, joint pain, and stomach disorders, as well as a first of its kind veterinary study of cannabinoid effects in dogs and horses.

For Buttorf, CEO of Panacea Plant Sciences, this is just the beginning. “We’re just scratching the surface of all the different cannabinoids and what they can do.”

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