Jax State and research group seeking partnership on medical cannabis

May 26—Jacksonville State University and a company called Sustainable Alabama announced earlier this year that, if the south Alabama farming operation is granted a medical cannabis license, the two will launch a partnership on a research trial.

This trial, under the careful eye of one of JSU’s leading researchers, Lori Hensley, Ph.D.,will focus on the medicinal properties of cannabinoids like CBD and their tumor-shrinking properties in certain aggressive and deadly strains of pediatric cancers.

Sustainable Alabama (SA) combines the knowledge of doctors, scientists, farmers and others to bring sustainable cutting-edge medicinal remedies to all of Alabama, according to its website. If the group is granted the license it’s seeking — one of the five medical cannabis licenses available in Alabama — the possibilities for therapeutic discoveries in the CBD field are huge, according to SA board member Dr. David Lozano.

Lozano is a pediatrician who focuses on pulmonary and sleep disorders in children. He said this new field of research opens the door to managing many more disorders through the use of a safe and effective alternative to certain medications that have harsher side effects.

For example, there are medications for epilepsy in children, but not many alternatives to those medications — some of which cause significant side effects such as dizziness, drowsiness and a lower appetite. Sometimes, Lozano said, the side effects can be a bigger problem than the condition itself.

“There’s just so much medically that marijuana could do in terms of, if there is an indication of kids with autism or sleep disorders or certain syndromes that could really make a difference if we used it safely and responsibly from a medical standpoint that could have a huge benefit for some of these conditions that are harder to treat,” Lozano said.

Lozano said SA chose Jacksonville State University because of Hensley’s existing research and interest in cannabinoid research.

Since around 2019, Hensley has been researching the effects of certain non-psychoactive compounds from the cannabis plant as potential therapeutics for pediatric sarcomas such as Ewing sarcoma that affects the bone and surrounding soft tissue. The survival rate for these types of cancers is extremely low — less than 20 percent at the 5-year point, according to Hensley.

“It’s clear that other treatment options need to be available to this pediatric population,” Hensley said.

Hensley said she works specifically with non-psychoactive compounds, especially when targeting the pediatric population. However, she said even the products with THC — the psychoactive component in the cannabis plant — show a lot of medicinal value.

Hensley said during her research, she’s found that these compounds seem to be effective against pain that even morphine has a hard time alleviating — such as deep-bone pain or pain from multiple sclerosis — but she’s interested in the anti-tumor properties that CBD exhibits.

Hensley, who’s head of the Biology Department at Jax State, said the university will benefit in multiple ways from the partnership with SA. Aside from funding, part of that partnership is also offering internship possibilities to Jax State students.

Hensley said the group is also working on building a curriculum around cannabis research in the science program.

“It’s just such a booming industry and when students graduate from here, I want to know that they’re going to stay in the STEM field and also do something that they’re interested in,” Hensley said. “And it’s kind of a natural fit for a lot of our student population in rural Alabama to go into farming or to go into something that comes out of farming. So I see a lot of potential for current and future students.”

Farming and agriculture is a huge part of this endeavor. Speaking with The Anniston Star on that aspect of the business, Ben Bramlett, farmer and shareholder of SA, said he was attracted to the program as an example of sustainable agriculture.

“I was very interested in sustainable agriculture when I was in school, and I had actually planned on going and getting a masters degree but when I saw this farm it just blew me away,” Bramlett said. “This farm, 90 percent of its power requirements are met by an on-farm solar panel array.”

It has its own power source without the need of coal-generated power. In addition to the solar panels, each of the greenhouses on the farm is heated and cooled by geothermal HVAC systems rather than propane-fired heaters.

The farm isn’t just cannabis and hemp, however — it still grows vegetables. Bramlett said they planted cucumbers this year that they grafted the roots of a squash plant to make the plants more durable.

“These squash rootstocks are much heartier than the cucumber roots are, so by putting squash roots on that cucumber plant, we still produce a cucumber that is just like any cucumber that you would find in a grocery store, but it’s got this very strong vigorous root system,” Bramlett said.

Bramlett has toyed with the idea of bringing that method into the cannabis world, he said. Grafting vegetables isn’t a common thing in farming, although it isn’t unheard of. However, he said, “you never see it in the cannabis realm.”

“At least I haven’t. I think it will be interesting with that and other modalities, to bring these conventional horticulture practices into the cannabis space,” Bramlett said.

There are 113 cannabinoids that have been found in the cannabis plant so far, according to Bramlett. Many could be researched to see if one may be more effective than the other, or possibly a blend of multiple.

However, the first step is getting the license, and Lozano said that might be a difficult feat as the field is highly competitive.

“I think we have a diverse group of people that could really make it impactful for our state,” Lozano said.

Staff Writer Ashley Morrison: 256-236-1551. On Twitter: @AshMorrison1105.

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