Cannabis Research Initiative of Saskatchewan (CRIS)

With legalization of cannabis just around the corner, a University of Saskatchewan (U of S) based research initiative has seed funding and a vision to fill the gaps regarding evidence-based research on cannabis genetics, biochemistry, medical uses, policy and socioeconomics.

Bill C-45, the Cannabis Act will pass by July 2018, legalizing and regulating growing, selling and purchasing cannabis in Canada. Since cannabis has historically been a Schedule II drug under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, there is currently very little evidence-based knowledge about the potential for cannabis as medicine, and much misunderstanding among the public about the risks of using it. 

The Cannabis Research Initiative of Saskatchewan (CRIS) was founded this year to provide reliable, evidence-based information to health care professionals, industry, government and the public. “We want to approach societal questions and concerns about cannabis use using an academic lens,” says CRIS Biomedical Lead, Jane Alcorn.

CRIS is not the first Canadian research organization to focus on cannabis; the Michael G. DeGroote Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research (CMCR) at McMaster University focuses on therapeutic potential and potential side effects of cannabis, and the Canadian Consortium for the Investigation of Cannabinoids (CCIC) is a non-profit organization of healthcare professionals and clinical researchers promoting evidence-based research. 

CRIS is, however, the first research organization to commit to a multi-disciplinary approach to cannabis research, with three research pillars. Currently involved in the project are 20 researchers, including two research chairs, from five U of S Colleges, including Pharmacy and Nutrition, Medicine, Arts and Science, Agriculture and Bioresources, and the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy. 

Under the Plant Genomic and Biochemical Diversity pillar, researchers will characterize genomics and analyze phenotypes and biochemical properties of cannabis with the goal of advancing its therapeutic potential and developing designer medicinal and recreational strains. Funding has been secured through Kanata Earth along with access to their extensive cannabis germplasm collection.

The Biomedical pillar will explore how cannabis and its derivatives can be used to treat disease in humans and animals, as well as develop best practices, models and techniques for clinical use. CRIS has seed funding to lead the national Children with Refractory Epileptic Encephalopathy (CARE-E) study to identify the effects of cannabis herbal extract on children with severe epilepsy that is resistant to treatment.  

The Policy and Socioeconomic pillar will provide policy, legal and governance recommendations for everything from economic development of various new crop varieties, market development and supply chain management, to quality control, standards and safety, and translating knowledge for the public. CRIS has already authored policy briefs including Legalizing & Regulating Cannabis in Saskatchewan, Legalizing Cannabis Brief, and Cannabis Retail and Distribution. They have also held two public Café Scientifique forums to engage the public and researchers.

CRIS has identified several priorities for its future development. It will become an operational hub for the multi-disciplinary study of cannabis, and has plans for several multi-disciplinary collaborative opportunities, including bi-weekly cross-college journal clubs, monthly cross-pillar meetings, scientific management meetings, and a pillar-wide two-day symposium coming up in August. They will also manage a web presence to profile activities, membership, research and educational materials. 

CRIS members will be reaching out to potential partners to build support at the U of S, as well as industry, government, and other institutions such as the Canadian Consortium for the Investigation of Cannabinoids (CCIC). To ensure long-term sustainability, CRIS is also seeking licensing from Health Canada to hold and grow cannabis and a cross-pillar CRIS Discovery lab and net-energy producing greenhouse.

Long term sustainability also relies on future researchers. Training and Knowledge Mobilization and Translation strategies include the production of educational materials for health care providers, government and the public. It also includes training development, such as a cannabis horticulture training certificate, an Indigenous Ethnobotany Biotechnology program, and seeking federal funding for a cross-pillared graduate training program. 

With a mandate to increase the understanding of both the potential and the risks of cannabis across disciplines, CRIS and its team members have set a goal to “become a nationally and internationally recognized centre of cannabis expertise,” says Alcorn.


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