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Southern Cross University uses plant genetics and chemistry expertise to boost cannabis research


Brigid Veale
16 June 2015
Southern Cross University researchers are boosting their involvement in cannabis research, following an increased focus on the end uses of cannabis, including medicinal use.

Director of Southern Cross Plant Science, Professor Graham King, said the University was responding to the increased interest and investment from the public and private sectors, for research and development associated with different valuable end uses of cannabis. This includes strategic investment in upgrading secure facilities at the University to accommodate new equipment and handling of research materials.

The NSW Government announced at the weekend the establishment of a $12 million Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research and Innovation, which will be headed up by NSW chief scientist Mary O'Kane. The Centre aims to enable experts to share their world-class research and support the production of safe, reliable and affordable cannabis based medicines.

This followed the announcement on Friday of a $33.7 million donation to the University of Sydney, from Barry and Jo Lambert, for research into the medicinal applications of cannabis.

“Southern Cross University plant scientists have welcomed the opportunity to join the research network. We look forward to the new opportunities this Centre will bring to NSW,” Professor King said.

“The commitment by the NSW government to support research and development for medicinal cannabis clinical trials is now being matched by support to underpin a NSW-based production and processing capability,” Professor King said.

“This step requires a strong R&D base to ensure investments are well targeted and come on line in a timely manner.”

Over the past few years, research in Southern Cross Plant Science, a Special Research Centre of Southern Cross University, has centred on a strong partnership with the Australian-based company Ecofibre Industries. Research has been carried out under authorisations from the NSW government, and has focused on regeneration and characterisation of a unique world genetic resource collection of Cannabis, owned and assembled over many years by Ecofibre Industries, that includes both industrial hemp and drug types. SCU also benefits from the global links available through Ecofibre, and the involvement of its plant scientists in the wider international research network focused on crop improvement.

Professor King is a renowned crop geneticist and has worked alongside plant breeders for more than 25 years. He is excited at the prospects for developing new cannabis cultivars that meet the requirements for pre-clinical research and clinical applications that are being trialled in NSW and elsewhere. In particular, Professor King is able to transfer his extensive experience in using genetic analysis and DNA markers for improving crops such as canola, for the systematic improvement of hemp and medicinal cannabis.

“Having a clear focus on specific clinical targets also opens up the opportunities for breeding plants that accumulate different subsets of functional cannabinoids,” Professor King said.

“Our ability to unravel the detailed genetics underpinning cannabinoid synthesis in the plant will enable us to recombine plants in a predictable fashion, and use DNA screening technologies to speed up this process.”

In work supported by Ecofibre, SCU is currently refining DNA tests that predict the cannabinoid content reliably at very early stages of seedling development. These advanced breeding methods are driving innovation for a wider range of novel end-uses that will add value throughout the supply chain. SCU plant scientists use such approaches in research that contributes to increasing profitability for a range of crop-based regional primary industries and processors in NSW and elsewhere.

Photo: Professor Graham King.