CARBONDALE — A new initiative to study cannabis has researchers excited across the Southern Illinois University Carbondale campus.
In the next year, the university will be clearing a five-acre field to plant and study hemp and will be developing a medicinal cannabis production certificate program for students, according to a news release from the university.
But rather than try to amplify the intoxicating effect of certain strains of cannabis, researchers at SIUC will seek to eliminate it, in order to focus on the many other uses and possibilities for this under-studied plant.
“We will not be cultivating THC-containing cannabis on campus,” Aldwin Anterola, of SIUC’s Department of Plant Biology, said. “We want to see what useful things are hiding behind THC.”
THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the psychoactive chemical mainly responsible for marijuana’s buzz. It also contributes to marijuana’s reported pain-relieving and muscle-relaxing properties.
“Everybody is so focused on THC and how to increase it,” Anterola said, as the legal and medicinal marijuana industries skyrocket.
But while marijuana buds may be anywhere from 3 to 25 percent THC, industrial hemp is extremely THC-scarce.
Marijuana’s non-intoxicating cousin has been cultivated for thousands of years to produce rope, fabrics and paper. It also contains dozens of cannabinoids, chemical compounds that have not been studied extensively.
“We’ve never looked at this plant before because it was off-limits legally,” Anterola said.
After decades of prohibition, hemp production for research was legalized by the federal government in 2014, and this August the Illinois state government legalized commercial hemp production.
Now SIU is poised to become one of the few universities nationwide that grows and studies cannabis.
“We’ve been engaged, and we are trailblazers in this, ahead of the other universities in the state,” Anterola said. “With our expertise at SIU, we could help a lot in terms of quality control and standardization” in the cannabis industry, he said.
Anterola is particularly interested in researching a compound found in hemp and marijuana that is not considered intoxicating, called CBD, or cannabidiol. It has been reported to treat a wide range of health conditions but has been subjected to little clinical study, due to the restrictions on marijuana and hemp.
Currently, the only approved CBD prescription use is a drug called Epidiolex, which treats two rare forms of childhood epilepsy.
“CBD supplements are everywhere,” Anterola said. “But we don’t know how much oversight we have on the manufacturers of these things.” Anterola hopes to help create safety guidelines for producing CBD products from hemp and testing those CBD products already on the market.
He also plans to tackle the challenge of keeping THC out of Illinois’ industrial hemp by studying seeds, strains and the genes that correspond to THC production in cannabis. Per state and federal laws, industrial hemp plants may exhibit no more than .3 percent THC. If a grower’s crop surpasses that limit, Anterola said, they could be in trouble with the Drug Enforcement Agency.
Anterola’s colleague Karla Gage, an assistant professor of weed science and agricultural systems, will tackle some of the fundamental questions that Southern Illinois farmers could face, should they choose to begin cultivating hemp.
Gage will study the plant’s growing conditions and adaptability to Southern Illinois, its harvest methods, and its impact on the local environment. She will also explore the plant’s potential to suppress weeds and grow in rotation with typical Illinois crops.
Elsewhere on campus, Dr. Dale “Buck” Hales will be exploring hemp’s ability to contribute to influential cancer research he developed at SIU.
Over the last decade, Hales and his team created a model to study ovarian cancer using laying hens. The chickens make perfect subjects, Hales explained, as they ovulate hundreds of times per year and develop a highly similar disease to human ovarian cancer.
Hales, his wife, Dr. Karen Hales, and other researchers used the hens to “study preventative strategies and understand the earliest steps in an ovary becoming cancerous,” Hales said.
Then, they focused on flaxseed, a “health food” grain known to be rich in anti-inflammatory omega 3 fatty acids.
“We determined that flaxseed slows the progression of ovarian cancer,” Hales said, by providing antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents that prevent tumors from growing and spreading.
Those results in chickens have led to two clinical studies assessing the same benefits for women in remission, who seek to avoid a recurrence of their cancer. So far, Hales said, the results are promising.
“Flaxseed appears to have a big effect on reducing incidence and severity of relapse,” Hales said.
Now his team will turn their focus to another natural substance thought to have therapeutic benefits: CBD.
“There’s a lot of consumer interest in CBD now, and literature where CBD is reported to have anticancer actions,” Hales said, “but there hasn’t been good animal model-based testing.”
Using methods similar to his flaxseed research, his team plans to acquire purified CBD oil from a provider in Kentucky and test its effect on cancerous chickens. Once SIU’s hemp field is up and running, Hales said, he plans to source hemp seed and hemp flowers from it to test their benefits as well.
There’s good indication that hemp products may be effective, Hales said, as they contain some anticancer compounds found in flaxseed, as well as other compounds as-yet unstudied.
“Ultimately, this will be a collaborative project that includes SIUE colleagues as well as colleagues from SIU Carbondale and the School of Medicine,” Hales said, with funding from SIU and the SIU School of Medicine. “We are poised to really make a difference.”
Any researcher who hopes one day to work with medical marijuana would need to get further permits from the Drug Enforcement Agency, according to Jim Garvey, SIU’s interim vice chancellor of research.
SIU’s medicinal cannabis production program, which is still being designed, will be largely covered by existing agriculture classes, Garvey said. Those classes, coupled with some new curriculum focused on hemp, should adequately prepare students to work with marijuana upon graduation, if they so choose.
Regardless of which cannabis species students work with, Garvey believes hemp could be big for the region, from university researchers to local growers.
“This is not just SIU’s opportunity, it belongs to all of Southern Illinois,” Garvey said.