In 2016, New Brunswick’s Economic Growth Plan identified cannabis as one of several opportunities to pursue for economic growth. Opportunities NB (ONB) has made cannabis a priority sector, actively aligning our efforts to ensure the economic and regulatory portions of the industry connect.

ONB works with New Brunswick’s world-class academic institutions to ensure they are involved in supporting the province’s cannabis sector via various research efforts.

Dr Martin Filion and Dr David Joly are both working on cannabis-related research at the Université de Moncton (UdeM). ONB spoke with both men to learn more.

ONB: First, let’s discuss what each of you is working on with regards to cannabis.

Filion: I am a soil microbiologist and molecular biologist, so my primary interest is microorganisms that live in soil and can be beneficial for plants. That includes helping plants grow better and faster and protecting them against disease.

We’ve worked on this for years with numerous species, notably potatoes. In the last couple of years, we’ve started working with hemp. We obtained a permit to grow hemp here at UdeM, which is rare amongst Canadian universities. We’re also applying for a permit to grow cannabis; we hope to have that in place this spring.

Joly: I began working on cannabis in 2015 via collaboration with Moncton’s OrganiGram. The goal at that time was to identify the genetic determinants of resistance to powdery mildew, a major disease affecting cannabis. We aimed to identify the resistance gene or genes in cannabis that could protect against that powdery mildew.

We were able to narrow it down to three candidate genes. We’re now working to take those genes from cannabis and transfer them to a model plant, Arabidopsis. Using that plant as a surrogate, we can further test which gene or genes are responsible for susceptibility and/or resistance to powdery mildew. Once we have a better idea which genes are significant we can look at them in various cannabis cultivars and then use that information in breeding programs or develop approaches for manipulating those genes to create fully resistant plants.

We are also interested in additional traits such as flowering and cannabinoid ratios among other things.

You mentioned Organigram. What other private sector players have you worked with?

Filion: We have attracted attention from several companies now working in the province. We’ve engaged Canutra Naturals in Bouctouche; they work in hemp production. We’ve also had discussions with Canopy Growth which is establishing a presence in Fredericton, and Atholville’s Zenabis. We expect to develop stronger collaboration with all of those companies moving forward.

Because my research is in microorganisms we work with the agricultural sector, which includes cannabis, on things like safe pesticides and fertilizers — reducing disease and boosting productivity.

Growing plants at high temperatures with high humidity means pathogens like mildew are a possibility. Conditions are conducive to potential diseases and there aren’t many chemical products available to licensed cannabis producers. So bio-pesticides, especially for cannabis producers, are of frequent interest right now.

ONB has made cannabis a priority sector for economic development. Tell us how your team works with ours.

Joly: ONB has been instrumental in terms of connecting us with those companies. We’ve had meetings with companies directly involved in the production of cannabis as well as others such as Lift that are not directly involved but represent additional aspects of the ecosystem. ONB has worked to establish that ecosystem for us all. It’s up to us now to see how we can best support all of those players with our various research efforts.

Filion: ONB is very supportive in terms of making those linkages, as David says. They have taken the lead as it relates to getting all of us talking and making sure companies know what we do and vice versa. We have been able to speak to representatives from companies that would have been hard to get time with without ONB’s efforts. ONB and the New Brunswick government have been very proactive with regards to developing the cannabis sector.

Do you think NB is well positioned to be a national leader in this space?

Filion: I recently met with Canuevo, another New Brunswick-based company. Their CEO is travelling and researching around the world. After speaking with them it’s apparent that New Brunswick is not just well positioned to lead in Canada, but positioned to be a world leader in cannabis research.

People think a place like the Netherlands would be ahead of everyone since cannabis is regularly used there. But it’s still illegal to produce cannabis in the Netherlands. It’s decriminalized for personal use but the government is not really supporting research. I think conditions exist in New Brunswick now that are very conducive to research and the development of a strong industry here; we really can lead the world in this regard.

Joly: We are off to a great start with research chairs announced at St. Thomas and the University of New Brunswick. While those chairs will focus on the social determinants of health and the biomedical/clinical aspects of cannabis, respectively, the next logical step would be a chair dedicated to a better knowledge of the actual plant. We need to further improve production of the plant and that’s what our team at UdeM is concentrating on.

What does legalization in 2018 mean for your team?

Filion: Licensed producers will expand and that will mean more demand for quality control; the more you produce the more potential problems you could encounter. These companies like collaborating with academia, and they know they need to put money on the table for it to work. That’s an opportunity for us, no doubt. We’re already seeing this happen with Organigram; they recently announced plans to increase their output to 25,000 kg per year.

Joly: Hopefully these companies know they can work with us more and more as they increase production. As with all crops anywhere in the world, when you start increasing production, you will have more potential for disease. It’s an issue the industry is aware of and must be ready to handle, and working with groups like ours will make that easier. As more producers get licensed, companies will need R&D in order to stay competitive and develop new products.

Written by Jason Boies