FARMINGTON —  More than $100,000 in research grants, received by two natural science faculty members at the University of Maine at Farmington, will fund a study on the chemical profile of medicinal cannabis.

Jean Doty, professor of biology, and Terry Morocco, associate professor of chemistry, have started a four-year project to look at medical cannabis strains and analyze the plant’s profile to determine the medicinal compounds in the plant, Doty said.

By identifying strains and the genetics that govern them, the profile may help determine what the properties of the plant are, what it is good for and provide more understanding of what it might be used to treat, she said.

The goal is to develop gene sequencing tests to determine strains that are medically desirable and make production for medical use more efficient.

Morocco and Doty will build on the research that has been done.

“There has been some foundation research done,” Doty said. “Quite a bit is known, but there is a lot more to do.”

“The medical benefits of cannabis are well-documented in scientific literature and have shown to produce measurable positive results, such as reducing spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease and reducing nausea associated with chemotherapy,” Morocco said in a news release.

In addition, the grant provides the opportunity to hire four student interns for each of the study’s four years. This will give them experience in biomedical research while they earn their undergraduate degree at UMF, she said.

A $66,000 grant was received from the Maine IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence, a collaborative Maine network, led by the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory and sponsored by the National Institute of Health.

A $40,000 grant was also received from the Maine Economic Improvement Funds Small Campus Initiative, a fund that supports innovative research at small University of Maine campuses that contribute to Maine’s innovative economy, according to a UMF release.

While Doty and Morocco are interested in the science behind the plant, they also want to involve students in research. The biomedical research training for undergraduate students fits in with the state’s technology goals, including the potential to attract industry here because there is a trained population, she said.

While most college students work while going to college, these interns will be paid to gain that experience, alleviating the need to work outside the school. Most of the funding will go toward student salaries, Doty said.

Science is what Doty and Morocco do, but it was the potential for helping the state’s economy that initially piqued their interest.

Doty became interested when she learned of a seminar being held in Millinocket on how to become a medical marijuana caregiver after the paper mill closed down.

The potential economic benefit for people to remain in the community and still have income caused her to also think about what barriers and safety concerns may be encountered.

The plausible strains with more medicinal properties have less recreational value and are safer. This could help alleviate worries over the product being stolen or people’s worries about it being grown in the community, she said.

Prior to the mill story, Morocco had been asked by former students, some now caregivers, to provide some analytical chemistry for them.

“I was impressed with what they did and instantly became fascinated in the subject,” he said. “I learned a lot from them.”

The plants are very complex; it is an interesting subject, he said. 

Where pharmaceutical medicines are designed and then tested, this project explores the science behind the plant, one used for centuries, with one goal being to help caregivers be more efficient in the growth of it and also provide knowledge of what it can help. 

“We are unique in doing this,” he said.

Small, processed samples of various strains of medical cannabis will be provided for testing by Integr8, a Maine-based leader of the therapeutic use of cannabis and a partner in the research.  

One reason cannabis is considered for medicinal use is because human bodies make some compounds similar to what these plants make, Doty said. Just as people may have deficiencies in vitamins, they may have a deficiency in their cannabinoid production. Taking it in from the plant may provide relief from symptoms associated with some chronic conditions, she said.

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