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CSU aims to lead cannabinoid research with new state-of-the-art center

Panacea Life Science Cannabinoid Research Center Director Melissa Reynolds and instrument
Stephanie Daniel
Colorado State University’s Panacea Life Sciences Cannabinoid Research Center director Melissa Reynolds stands in front of a state-of-the-art chemical separation and analysis instrument.

Colorado State University opened a new research center this week. Panacea Life Sciences Cannabinoid Research Center will study the health benefits of cannabinoids on both humans and animals.

CSU and College of Natural Sciences alum Leslie Buttorff gifted the university $1.5 million to create the center. In 2017, she founded Panacea Life Sciences which sells CBD products from people and pets. Buttorff is partnering with the university to advance cannabinoid research.

“Everyone knows about THC and maybe CBD,” she said. “But there's other minor cannabinoids that we want to do research on. And it contributes to a natural way for health to help people and pets.”

Cannabinoids are a broad class of chemicals found in the Cannabis sativa plant, which is also called cannabis or hemp. Both contain the two main cannabinoids: THC and CBD. The difference is that marijuana contains higher levels of THC which produces the “high” that’s associated with using the drug, while hemp has 0.3% or less THC. CBD has been touted for its health benefits for things like anxiety and pain relief and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a drug with CBD to treat seizures. There are over 100 cannabinoid chemicals.

The center is run through the College of Natural Sciences and housed in the chemistry building. Research will be conducted on CBD and some of the other cannabinoids, but not THC.

“CSU is a great university. It's a land grant university,” she said. “If you think of all the departments that CSU has to contribute to cannabinoid research, we've got chemistry, biology, agriculture, the vet (veterinary) med, human med. So, it just has all the different departments to bring it all together.”

The lab has state-of-the-art chemical separation and analysis instrumentation. These instruments allow researchers to extract the specific cannabinoid they want to study. Liquid mixtures, that include crude hemp, are run through the instruments which separates and extracts the chemicals. This process helps researchers figure out the unique properties of a certain cannabinoid and how to best utilize them, said center director Melissa Reynolds.

“(As) we put it in the formulation that gets used for whatever the application is, we know it's pure and we can identify how much is aiding to that therapeutic effect,” she said.

The hemp and CBD industries are booming and the global CDB market is expected to reach $13.4 billion by 2028. With this new center CSU is positioning itself to be a leader in cannabinoid research by studying the medicinal properties of other lesser known cannabinoids.

In a recent article published by CSU, Reynolds said they are trying to develop a variety of studies to answer “key questions about key cannabinoids, to really look at their potency and their efficacy for various applications.”

The center was delayed for over a year due to COVID-19. But research has already started and there are 15 projects going on right now. Several departments will utilize the instruments including psychology which is conducting a study on cannabinoids, alcohol addiction and treatment.

The $1.5 million gift allowed the center to buy the equipment needed to complete research now and in the future. This includes the ability to scale up which is a big advantage, said Reynolds.

“We can go from research benchtops, small scale to medium industrial scale,” she said.

Panacea Life Sciences Cannabinoid Research Center graduate student Jamie Cuchiaro
Stephanie Daniel
Colorado State University graduate student Jamie Cuchiaro uses instruments like this to separate and extract cannabinoids from liquid at the Panacea Life Sciences Cannabinoid Research Center.

Researchers will be able to transfer work from small instruments that only run 100 micro liters to larger ones that can run up to 55 gallons of liquid an hour. Scaling up the process will help translate the experiments from academics to the private sector, said Reynolds.

“We are very equipped now, due to the gift that Leslie (Buttorff) provided, to be able to do the scale up,” she said. “That then makes the technology more available for industry in Colorado.”

The lab is open to undergrad and graduate students who want to study the effects of cannabinoids. Reynolds plans to help students fit projects to their interests including one who is interested in how CBD can affect anxiety.

“Many undergraduates in our sciences want to have the experiences. It creates more competition for them when they go into the workforce to kind of have that competitive edge,” she said. “I'm a real big fan of helping students get real experiences.”

Fourth year graduate student Jamie Cuchiaro is a separations chemist and is working on different separations involving low abundance or minor cannabinoids. She was already working on her PhD research before the center opened and also interned at Panacea Life Sciences two years ago. Cuchiaro, who plans to work in research after graduation, thinks the new lab is “amazing.”

“We're able to analyze cannabinoids at lower concentrations and with higher accuracy than what would be the industry standard currently,” she said. “It's a very exciting time to be getting into this field.”

Cuchiaro works closely with other researchers. For example, there’s a collaboration looking at the CBD uptake in blood plasma in humans and horses. The animal side researchers will conduct their clinical study, collect blood samples, and then spin down the blood. What’s left is the different molecules.

“They would then bring it over to me, and I would be able to tell them exactly how much CBD is in the plasma, how much of those metabolites are present,” she said. “Then we can collaborate from that place in order to build meaning and move forward.”

CSU is working on different opportunities for students to receive minors or certificates in hemp or cannabinoid studies. The center is also collaborating with CSU Pueblo which offers a Bachelor of Science in Cannabis Biology and Chemistry degree.

“I think there's going to be a lot more crosstalk between the two universities to provide opportunities for students to either get certificates or minors in the various areas that are customized to what their interests are,” said Reynolds. “Whether that be more on the synthetic side, the analytical side, the agricultural side, the business side, the manufacturing side. I think all of those will end up becoming possibilities that we're all working towards that goal right now.“

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