The hearty, herbaceous hemp plant, admired for centuries for its medicinal and physical properties, has enjoyed a renaissance in the last several years.

The 2018 Farm Bill released industrial hemp products from entanglement with marijuana, their psychoactive, federally controlled cousin that hails from the same plant species, Cannabis sativa. A variety of cannabis cultivars now offer a vast array of legal products, from clothing fibers to edible extracts.

Cannabidiol, or CBD, is one such hemp product that has skyrocketed into a $2 billion industry, offering consumers tinctures, oils, gummy candy and even CBD-infused toothpicks. CBD, along with tetrahydrocannabinol a.k.a. THC, is one of over 150 chemicals called cannabinoids that are found in the cannabis plant and are known to interact with human and animal bodies. Non-intoxicating, gentle CBD has proven health benefits for seizures, anxiety, pain relief and more.

Colorado State University and College of Natural Sciences alumna Leslie Buttorff (’79, statistics) has capitalized on the promise and potential of medically relevant CBD, selling products through her Golden-based company Panacea Life Sciences since 2017. Buttorff thinks that we’ve only seen the tip of the cannabinoid iceberg, though, and she’s partnering with scientists at CSU to see what else hemp has in store for human and pet health and beyond.

leslie buttorff
Leslie Buttorff, CEO of Panacea Life Sciences

Thanks to a $1.5 million gift from Buttorff, CSU is celebrating the grand opening of the Panacea Life Sciences Cannabinoid Research Center, housed in the Chemistry Building in the heart of campus. The one-of-a-kind center boasts state-of-the-art chemical separation and analysis instrumentation to enable foundational research in the chemistry of cannabinoids. It will serve as a springboard for CSU-based research, new and ongoing, that’s focused not just on CBD, but cannabinoids in general.

“We are very excited about working with new cannabinoids and establishing industry-leading research programs that explore cannabinoid biology more extensively,” Buttorff said.

What are cannabinoids?

Cannabinoids are a broad class of chemicals found in the Cannabis sativa plant that interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system, a set of chemical receptors in the nervous system. Beyond the best-known THC and CBD, there are over 150 known cannabinoids expressed in the cannabis plant, but few have been studied or well understood. Buttorff, and many others at CSU, want to change that.

Melissa Reynolds, professor in the Department of Chemistry and director of the new research center, says that cannabinoids are a fascinating, relatively untapped area of analytical and materials chemistry. CSU possesses a wide variety of expertise to lead in cannabinoid research, Reynolds said.

“People will say, ‘Well, this particular cannabinoid is good for – blank,” Reynolds said. “Do we have any data for that? Is that data reliable? There’s a good understanding out there that it’s not – that the scientific evidence for the claim is pretty hit or miss. So, we’re trying now to develop various studies to answer key questions about key cannabinoids, to really look at their potency and their efficacy for various applications.”

Melissa Reynolds and Jamie Cuchiaro in cannabinoid research center

Panacea Life Sciences Cannabinoid Research Center Director Melissa Reynolds and graduate student Jamie Cuchiaro look at data in the lab. 

Central to Buttorff’s motivation behind partnering with CSU on cannabinoid research are the problems she and others in this relatively new industry encounter. Among them is a lack of trust among consumers in CBD companies, due to issues like inaccurate labeling of CBD potency. At issue, too, are varying state-to-state regulations on testing for quality and safety, not to mention the extremely high cost of testing for companies.

What’s more, the health potential of CBD and other cannabinoids, for humans and pets, are only beginning to be understood. More research is needed not just on CBD but also on new, emerging compounds in the cannabis plant that are found in smaller quantities but may have medicinal benefits.

For instance, the lesser-known CBG, or cannabigerol, seems to have positive effects on skin as well as digestive health, with implications for conditions like inflammatory bowel disorder or Crohn’s Disease. Among the research Buttorff hopes to kickstart at CSU is the exploration of CBG’s clinical relevance. Buttorff is also interested in the neuroprotective activity of CBG when used in combination with CBD. Such research could have implications for neurogenerative diseases like dementia or Alzheimer’s.

Support for science

Buttorff’s singular focus on bringing scientific clout to the cannabinoid industry is shared by many across CSU’s campus who have already been working in related areas for many years.

On the synthetic chemistry side, Professor Debbie Crans and Ph.D. student Andrew Bates have embarked on an ambitious project aimed at improving how cannabinoids like CBD are isolated and purified. Bates is exploring the use of metal nanoparticles to catalyze decarboxylation reactions that are necessary to extract CBD from the hemp plant, and which currently require high-intensity, high-heat industrial processes. Bates’ process would be greener, simpler, and more efficient.

“It’s just very interesting to me, the whole idea of natural products and naturally occurring things that can help people,” Bates said. “I feel that the cannabis industry still has a long way to go with fundamental research.”

With research activity in the center beginning to ramp up, its leaders are busy defining how to extend the space to researchers across campus working in cannabinoid-related areas.

Jamie Cuchiaro, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in Reynolds’ lab, manages day-to-day lab operations and is responsible for the equipment there. This includes two gas and liquid chromatographs, which allow scientists to separate components of a hemp extract, as well as two mass spectrometers, which allow researchers to identify all compounds within a sample, even in very trace amounts. Cuchiaro is conducting several lines of research in collaboration with scientists at Panacea Life Sciences. Earlier this year, Cuchiaro presented those activities at the 2021 Virtual Cannabis Research Conference hosted by CSU-Pueblo and Oregon State University.

Maddie Roach and Jamie Cuchiaro in cannabinoid lab

Maddie Roach and Jamie Cuchiaro in the Panacea Life Sciences Cannabinoid Research Center.

In one study, Cuchiaro and colleagues explored the use of a metal-organic framework, which is like a molecular sponge and is useful in biomedical applications, as an absorption scaffold for cannabinoids from solution. In another project, Cuchiaro developed a method for simultaneous detection of pesticide residues and low-abundance cannabinoids.

Cuchiaro’s research is focused on separation chemistry and answering fundamental questions about how cannabinoids are structured and can be separated from their matrices. It’s just one aspect of a multi-faceted arena of research, which includes everything from the chemistry of the plant itself, to supply chains that bring industrial products to consumers.

Beyond chemistry

CSU’s expertise in the hemp value chain spans seed to sale and includes several researchers in the College of Agricultural Sciences and the Division of Engagement and Extension. Earlier this year, the state of Colorado released the Colorado Hemp Advancement and Management Plan, with CSU co-authors Rebecca Hill, Dawn Thilmany and Daniel Mooney in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics.

The report is a blueprint for standardizing the hemp industry across the country. As the industry grows in value and complexity, CSU experts are positioned to lead in foundational sciences and translating to technical assistance ­­– from seed genetics and cultivation, to extracting valuable commodities through better industrial processes – that will ultimately help policymakers and end-users.

Although the Panacea Life Sciences Cannabinoid Research Center is designed to perform complex chemical separation and analysis of various compounds, cannabinoid-related research across campus spans well beyond analytical chemistry.

For instance, Hollis Karoly, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, is directing an ongoing study on CBD and alcohol co-use. Blood samples from study participants will most likely be analyzed using resources in the cannabinoid research center.

And Dr. Stephanie McGrath, a veterinary neurologist at CSU’s James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital, is leading a clinical trial evaluating the efficacy of CBD for canine epilepsy patients.

Having a central resource that allows researchers across campus to access cutting-edge equipment and create synergies will be essential to bolstering CSU’s reputation as a leader in cannabinoid research and biology, according to Reynolds.

“The concept here is that the center can be a focal point for people to take off in all kinds of directions,” Reynolds said.

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