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The Secret for Producing Standardized Medical Cannabis

Cannabis is legal in Canada! Wow! As a self-described leftover hippy from the 1970s I find this to be a remarkable and of course, happy turn of events. However, Canada’s tackling of this new horticultural industry will continue to undergo growing pains and we’ll probably make a few mistakes along the way.

So let’s all keep our sense of humour and common sense as we make progress on the regulatory, business, and technical aspects of what is arguably one of the most exciting opportunities for the Canadian horticulture and pharmaceutical industry sectors in generations.

My place in the cannabis industry is completely from the technical perspective, and relates to the controlled environment agriculture technologies we have come to deploy in producing this medical commodity. My credentials and the technologies I bring to the cannabis industry were born in the field of space exploration. Since 1995 the Space and Advanced Life Support Agriculture (SALSA) program at the University of Guelph has provided Canada’s contribution to that incredibly important niche field in space exploration called biological life support (ie. plants in space). Food determines how far from Earth we can go and how long we can stay (you all saw The Martian surely!) so it is rather important that we figure out all the details of growing plants in harsh environments. The University of Guelph has become one of the world’s leading research and technology development venues addressing the challenge of putting plants on other planets for human life support. And we come by our leadership in this field quite honestly because, after all, the next worst place to try and grow a plant after a snow bank in Canada is actually the surface of the Moon or Mars!

The main technical objective in reliably and indefinitely using food crops as the life support “machines” for humans exploring places like Mars is to provide a predictable and standardized menu of nutritional compounds in those plants. So our research endeavours over the past quarter century have aimed to develop horticultural management strategies and environment control protocols to exploit the current status of breeding and genetics in food crops to produce a reliable and consistently predictable profile of nutritional compounds. And we have done very well over the years making contributions to the field of biological life support in space.

Fast forward to the 21st century and the entry of medical cannabis on the horticulture scene in Canada. Among the most significant challenges facing the industry, the purveyors of the pharmaceutical commodities related to cannabis, and the medical practitioners responsible for prescribing some form of the plant as a drug, is the lack of consistency in the profile of medical compounds in the plant. Sound familiar?

So for the last four years and counting we have been in collaboration with the cannabis industry to help them develop the “secret sauce” that will yield this standardized recipe of medical compounds. These could then proceed to clinical trials and reduce the error bars on the measurements of efficacy for treating specific human (and animal) ailments. The technology of high-fidelity environment control of light quality, light intensity, CO2 concentration, temperature, humidity, nutrients, and water that we developed to provide standardized nutrition for life support is perfectly appropriate to solve the same issue in delivering consistent profiles of medical compounds in cannabis (or any medicinal plant for that matter).

Our work is ongoing and making significant strides in the development of lighting systems using light emitting diodes (LEDs) that are proving very useful in advancing the environment control technology. The risk with LEDs is making sure the spectral recipe (colour) is the right one and errors in this specification in the past have caused quite a bit of confusion and distrust among the industry. Understanding the relationship between the spectral quality of light and the photochemistry that results in the medical compounds of interest (THC, CBD) is the main subject of our current work. We will get it right and transfer that technology to the industry to help them address the standardization issue for this remarkable plant.

Dr. Mike Dixon is Professor and Director, Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility, University of Guelph

Photos courtesy of Dr. Mike Dixon