From cancer to cannabis: UNB hires 1st marijuana research chair

Yang Qu says he will draw on his experience of developing anti-cancer drugs to understand the full potential of cannabis.

Yang Qu spent the past 5 years extracting cancer-curing compounds from plants

Yang Qu is the first person in Canada to carry the title of cannabis health research chair. (Cameron Fitch/Submitted)

Canada's first academic researcher focused solely on the cannabis plant says he'll draw on his experience developing anti-cancer drugs to help him understand the full potential of pot. 

Yang Qu was recently hired as the cannabis health research chair and assistant professor at the University of New Brunswick.

He spent the last five years studying the Madagascar periwinkle and how to synthesize the compounds in that plant to use in chemotherapy.

Qu said his time leading that research at Brock University was successful, and he will draw on that experience in his new, groundbreaking role.

"We know something about the medicinal value of cannabinoids, about the major two cannabinoids, THC and CBD," he said. "The information about other cannabinoids that also accumulate in the plant are very scarce, so this is an area that we need to study."

Benefits of synthetic production

THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, is the psychoactive compound that causes the euphoric or high feeling, while CBD or cannabidiol is a non-psychoactive compound that is used to treat anxiety and pain. Qu said those compounds are produced by specific genes.

"We could transfer these genes from the cannabis plant and into different kind of microorganisms. Potentially you could produce very pure compounds," Qu said.

Synthetically producing those compounds without having to extract them from a plant means production could be much quicker.

Qu said he hopes finding more medical applications for cannabis will help fight the stigma that still remains even after legalization.

"In the past, even in Canada, cannabis is considered a taboo but we're seeing the change of image of the plant with legalization," he said. "Especially with the discovery of medicinal use of the planet we're going to create a very positive image of the plant."

'Direct implications'

Qu will begin the five-year position at UNB on Jan. 1.

He said he will focus on three areas: medical applications, agricultural improvement and speaking to private producers and government bodies to see exactly where the research is needed most.

He said the latter will be his priority in the first few weeks.

"This research would have direct implication with the industry," he said. "I would like to talk with local industry and the private sector as well as government agencies of food and agriculture to set priorities for the research project."

Chosen among 40

Qu was chosen from over 40 other people who applied for the position, and was shortlisted among three other researchers.

He will spend his time at both the chemistry and chemical engineering departments. UNB vice-president of research David MaGee said every department in the university was consulted in the hiring process.

David MaGee, vice-president research at the University of New Brunswick, said Qu was chosen from more than 40 other candidates. (Hadeel Ibrahim/CBC)

"You make a decision based on all of that feedback and who you feel will be the best fit for the university, the best fit in the position, and really the person who has, I think, a very novel and creative research program," MaGee said.

The UNB position is funded equally by Toronto-based pharmaceutical company Tetra Bio Pharma and the New Brunswick Health Research Foundation.

Collaborating with STU

St. Thomas University also announced a cannabis research chair last year, but the search is still ongoing, said Michael Dawson, associate vice-president of research.

The STU research chair would be part of the criminology or sociology departments who will focus "on delivering useful policy analysis that can focus of the social impact of cannabis or the health impact of cannabis," Dawson said.

The STU and UNB research chairs would ideally be working together, Dawson.

"We're hoping to have a short list of candidates we can interview … Sometime in December or January," he said.

Dawson said he hopes they'll be at the "forefront" of the cannabis phenomena.