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New Center for Medical Cannabis Research to Bridge Knowledge Gaps From Bench to Bedside

Media Contact:

Sophia Friesen

Manager, Science Communications, University of Utah Health

Thousands of new Utah patients are approved for an active medical cannabis card every month. But much remains unknown about how cannabis interacts with other medications, what other factors increase its risks, and even which health conditions medical cannabis is effective for.

University of Utah Health, in partnership with the state, has launched a new research initiative to advance scientific understanding of medical cannabis and help patients and providers make informed health decisions about this increasingly common medication.

Valerie Ahanonu, B.S., senior manager of the newly instated Center for Medical Cannabis Research (CMCR), says the center’s overall aim is to “look at the methodology behind how people are using cannabis, and to create a translational approach to understanding its benefits and risks.” To achieve this goal, the CMCR will use several complementary strategies:

  • Supporting research about medical cannabis within the University of Utah and statewide
  • Improving patient, provider, and pharmacist education about cannabis risks and benefits
  • Working to instate an DEA-approved grow site for research-grade medical cannabis
Profile photo of Valerie Ahanonu
Valerie Ahanonu, senior manager of the CMCR.

While the CMCR is based at U of U Health, it is a statewide institution that aims to foster collaborations between institutes of research and higher learning across Utah. The center will work in partnership with Utah State University, for instance, which has been growing cannabis for research purposes since 2019. The center is also currently doing a nationwide search for a director.

The CMCR receives state funding annually to support its research directives. Jennifer Dailey-Provost, MBA, District 22 representative in the Utah House of Representatives, sponsored the bill that funds the CMCR. Dailey-Provost is also a doctoral candidate in public health at U of U Health and says that the research knowledge, expertise, and existing infrastructure at the university make it an ideal hub to support medical cannabis research statewide. 
“This is one of the premier research institutions in the nation,” Dailey-Provost adds. “We couldn’t ask for a better place to keep the heart of a meaningful research program than the University of Utah.”

Discovery from bench to bedside

Profile photo of Jerry Cochran
Jerry Cochran, interim director of the CMCR

Jerry Cochran, M.S.W., Ph.D., interim director for the CMCR, describes the spectrum of research the center will support as “bench to bedside.” Starting with pilot grants to help scientists begin projects on medical cannabis, the CMCR will promote research ranging from chemical characterization of the active components of cannabis through to late-stage clinical trials. The steering committee of the CMCR is reviewing the existing science to find areas that are most in need of more research and has found a particular need for clinical trials to identify additional health conditions that could be alleviated—or aggravated—by cannabis use.

Dailey-Provost adds that much of the center’s research will focus on the medical cannabis products that are already available to Utah patients. “We keep hearing from providers that they just don’t have enough information to comfortably recommend this for patients,” Dailey-Provost says. “What we ultimately need is reliable, evidence-based research information on the medication that we are already offering to patients in the state of Utah.”

Empowering patients and providers

Another major focus of the center is to improve education for both patients and providers, empowering them to make decisions that are scientifically sound. “We want to ensure that people are having conversations that are research-based about how people utilize their medicine,” Ahanonu explains.
The center will partner with the Genetic Science Learning Center at the University of Utah to create educational materials about medical cannabis. The Genetic Science Learning Center specializes in making engaging, clear materials, which will help reach patients and providers with the knowledge to make informed decisions. The CMCR also plans to work with the Spencer S. Eccles Health Sciences Library to produce an accessible database of the most rigorous and up-to-date information in the field.

Supporting growth locally and beyond

One significant hurdle to cannabis research is the limited supply of research-grade medical cannabis, especially from sites that are approved by the DEA. The CMCR aims to eliminate this bottleneck by supporting the establishment of an DEA-approved cannabis grow site for research. 
Such a site would be especially important given the complexity of the plant itself as a medication. Cannabis contains multiple active ingredients, and the levels of each can vary hugely depending on the strain of the plant and the way it’s processed. A source for cannabis plants that can be used for National Institutes of Health-funded research would allow scientists across Utah to start answering questions about how those differences affect human health.
Cochran emphasizes that, with all the hype—both positive and negative— that surrounds medical cannabis, it’s especially important for people to have a trustworthy source of evidence-based information. “In certain circles, medical cannabis is being pushed as a cure-all, but I think it’s going to help certain things and not others,” Cochran says. “Science needs to take the lead in this area so that we continue to help people.”