Performing research that will inform medical professionals and law enforcement officials about the appropriate use of cannabis – that’s what Cheryle Beuning will do for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) this spring.
Beuning, a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry working in the Crans group, will be a NIST National Research Council Postdoctoral Research Associate in Boulder.
“There isn’t a lot of cannabis research going on at the federal level because of all the red tape you have to go through due to its classification as a Schedule 1 drug,” Beuning said. “The group I am joining at NIST, however, has already gone through the process to have a DEA registration in place to make this research possible.”
Beuning’s research will include a competitive cell receptor study on the effectiveness of pure cannabinoids extracted from cannabis, currently coming to market, compared to a more holistic plant approach.
Secondary to her medical research, Beuning will collaborate with a group at the University of Colorado that studies the effects of cannabis while operating motor vehicles. These studies will help characterize breath samples, which can assist in creating future standards similar to those for alcohol.
This NIST NRC program provides advanced training for a two-year maximum appointment to a highly select group of scientists and engineers who show great potential as future creative leaders in research.
“I will get to learn from some of the best researchers in the country,” Beuning said. “It’s an amazing opportunity to get insight from a prestigious national lab on how to conduct research and be among scientists and engineers from so many different fields. It is an amazing start of my doctoral career.”
Awardees are chosen through a national competition administered by the NRC of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Currently, NIST employs only about 100 postdocs nationwide.
Medical treatments and the entourage effect
Beuning will study the cannabinoid “entourage effect,” which is the idea that the different components of Cannabis sativa (phytocannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids) work together to make it more effective than extracting and using one component alone.
A recent study Beuning used in her proposal to support the existence of this effect concluded that 71% of patients reported a CBD-rich plant extract was more efficient in treating seizures than the purified CBD (cannabidiol) drug.
To test the hypothesis that an entourage effect does exist, Beuning’s proposal is to look for changes in the binding constants of CBD to cannabinoid receptors in cells while in the presence of other cannabinoids such as THC, components like terpenes, and potentially whole plant extracts. Observed changes in binding could present a molecular-level explanation for an entourage effect, which has only been seen through opinion-type medical research.
“If the entourage effect hypothesis is supported, it will have direct implications for future industrial and medical applications,” Beuning said. “Especially those that concern the pharmacological and public health safety roles of C. sativa products.”
Some medical professionals are currently using both purified, extracted solids of cannabis as well as cannabis with multiple components indigenous to the plant. This research could help create the most efficacious treatment for patients with cancer, nausea, epilepsy and more.
Informing policy for law enforcement
In addition to her research on the entourage effect, Beuning will work with a group at CU Boulder to test how to measure cannabis intoxication when operating a vehicle. The group will study volunteers in a driving simulator and perform regular breath samples, which Beuning will analyze using analytical chemistry and spectroscopy.
“Currently, there is no consensus on how to measure cannabis intoxication based on breath samples,” Beuning said. “There are a lot of variables, such as how these cannabinoids partition into our cells, which is why we don’t have these types of devices yet.”
The long-term goal of this project is to provide law enforcement and industry with a way to accurately, reliably, and consistently determine recent cannabis use.
Beuning will earn her Ph.D. in chemistry this fall and start her career in cannabis research in February 2020.
To learn more about the program Beuning will be working in, visit https://www.nist.gov/iaao/academic-affairs-office/nist-nrc-postdoctoral-research-associateships-program.