Dr. Qu’s appointment, which comes more than a year after the cannabis chair was announced, is an important step for UNB, which aspires to be a global leader in cannabis research and is laying the groundwork to make cannabis-related studies and courses a new academic pillar at the Fredericton-based institution.
“The industry is crying out for some really strong, bona fide research efforts because much of the evidence [on cannabis] has been anecdotal,” said David MaGee, vice-president of research at UNB. “This allows us to get in on the ground … and help develop research in a number of different areas.”
Although his most recent work has been on anti-cancer drugs, Dr. Qu says his primary interest in cannabis involves discoveries that will help the industry grow. The key to that, he believes, is looking into the untapped medicinal potential of cannabinoids, the chemical compounds in cannabis that affect brain receptors. While cannabis plants have more than 100 cannabinoids, little is known about most of them.
The research produced to date has concentrated mostly on two cannabinoids: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is responsible for giving users a high, and cannabidiol (CBD), which is commonly associated with pain relief and decreased anxiety.
Guy Chamberland, the CEO and chief science officer of Tetra Bio-Pharma, which is funding a portion of the chair along with the New Brunswick Health Research Foundation, says university research is critical to destigmatizing cannabis.
“Our universities have to generate the data to convince physicians and other stakeholders that it can be part of health care,” he said. “Unfortunately people just remember the negative aspects of getting high and not that this could be a medication.”
In addition to discovering more about cannabinoids, Dr. Qu said he is interested in “developing new production strategies for cannabinoids,” including figuring out whether they can be produced in a lab rather than growing an actual plant. If he is able to develop a methodology, it could alleviate the pinch licensed producers feel when the demand for products spikes but the supply is restricted by the slow production cycle.
Dr. Qu also said he believes the genetics of cannabis plants can be improved for greenhouse production and for growing in cold climates.
He has already begun talks with some of UNB’s industry partners. The school recently signed several memorandums of understanding amid a broader effort to transform New Brunswick into a cannabis industry-friendly hub.
One of those memorandums is with Canada House Wellness Group Inc., a licensed cannabis producer in talks with the university to develop cannabis-related curricula for professional courses that could lead to certificate or degree programs.
St. Thomas University, also based in Fredericton, remains on the hunt for a candidate to fill its cannabis research chair, which will have a social science focus, likely on policy development.