Cannabis research has increased in recent years as more territories have legalized the use of marijuana for medical and recreational purposes. The increase in legal access has led to a corresponding increase in scientific interest, with researchers eager to study cannabis's potential uses and effects.
From improved cultivation practices to new delivery systems for cannabis-based medicines, this article explores the latest and most promising cannabis research trends.
1. Modern cultivation and production techniques
As the cannabis industry’s revenue increases, more companies invest in modern cultivation techniques and controlled agricultural practices. This includes developing and using advanced growing systems such as hydroponics and aeroponics and applying genetic engineering to create new strains with specific desired characteristics.
Research interest in sustainability and ethics is also growing, partly fueled by consumer education and news coverage of the topic. Precision irrigation methods, the development of biologically derived pesticide products, energy efficiency, and closed-loop cannabis extraction systems are active areas of research to minimize the environmental impact of cannabis production.
As more stakeholders discuss the need for cannabis standards, the focus on standardization and quality control in cannabis cultivation continues to grow. This includes the use of Good Agricultural Practices, Good Manufacturing Practices, regular testing, and personnel training to ensure consistent and safe products.
"Obtaining products of good quality for medical research involves a careful selection of suppliers," says Juliana Bastos, PhD, a medical scientific specialist at Ease Labs, a group focused on developing, producing, and distributing natural products, including Pharmaceutical Standard Medical Cannabis. "There are many products on the market, and reliance on quality pharmaceutical products is interesting not only for academic purposes but will bring security for physicians and patients."
2. Increasing focus on the therapeutic potential of cannabidiol
Cannabidiol (CBD) is a non-psychoactive compound found in the cannabis plant. Unlike tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis, CBD does not produce a "high" and has gained significant attention in cannabis research. Animal studies and human research suggest that CBD may help with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, Alzheimer's disease, and pain.
CBD has also gained attention as a possible treatment for substance use disorder. A study published in 2022 identified 13 ongoing clinical trials intended to evaluate the efficacy of CBD to treat drug addiction. Conditions assessed in those studies included cannabis use disorder (five studies), opioid use disorder (four studies), alcohol use disorder (three studies), and cocaine use disorder (one study).
Considering the potential beneficial effects of CBD on human health, more research needs to be conducted to ensure its safety and efficacy. This includes the development of quality assurance standards for testing, which is currently a research gap. In addition, the development of high CBD, low THC cannabis strains through molecular breeding holds promise to accelerate cannabis research progress.
3. Minor cannabinoids taking center stage
In addition to the major phytocannabinoids, THC and CBD, cannabis produces smaller amounts of more than 120 other cannabinoids. The phytocannabinoids present in smaller amounts in the cannabis plant are referred to as minor (or rare) cannabinoids and include cannabinol (a derivative of THC) and cannabigerol (the precursor of CBD).
Minor cannabinoids have not been studied as extensively as CBD or THC. Still, recent research has shown potential therapeutic benefits for conditions such as neuropathic pain, neurodegenerative diseases, epilepsy, cancer, and skin disorders.
The results from preliminary research look promising, but much of the current knowledge of the medicinal benefits of minor cannabinoids has come from small studies rather than rigorous clinical trials. "Despite the popularity of cannabis products, many claims about their efficacy still need to be shown in large clinical trials," explains Bastos. "Knowing their mechanism of action and how minor cannabinoids interact with other medications is also important before claiming their therapeutic properties."
Aligned with this trend, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), issued a Notice of Special Interest aiming to promote mechanistic research of therapeutic benefits of minor cannabinoids and terpenes in cannabis. As researchers deepen their understanding of the cannabis plant and its compounds, we will likely better understand the health benefits of minor cannabinoids and how they could be applicable in the pharmaceutical industry.
4. New and improved delivery systems for cannabis-based medicines
A significant challenge in developing cannabis-based medicines is finding effective ways to deliver active compounds to the body. Traditional methods of ingestion, such as smoking, can harm people’s health and may not provide consistent dosing. Moreover, low aqueous solubility and poor bioavailability hinder the effective clinical development of oral cannabinoid formulations.
Academic researchers and pharmaceutical companies are exploring new delivery methods to make cannabis products more effective and safer. For example, sublingual formulations containing cannabinoids have been designed to be sprayed under the tongue and absorbed through the mucous membranes in the mouth, allowing for quick and efficient absorption into the bloodstream.
The use of nanotechnology to deliver cannabis-based medicines is another promising research topic. Sosnik et al. (2021) showed the potential of polymeric nanocarriers for the ocular drug delivery of CBD, and Aphios Corporation will use the nanoencapsulation technique in a phase II study assessing the efficacy, safety, and tolerability of CBD as a pharmacotherapy for opioid dependence.
Transdermal patches, which allow for the slow release of active compounds through the skin, are also gaining popularity as cannabinoid delivery systems. This modality avoids the first-pass metabolism and leads to constant cannabinoid plasma levels.
The development of improved methods to deliver cannabis-based medicines is an active area of research and holds enormous potential for future treatments.
5. Cannabis research expands due to changes in the legal landscape
On December 2, 2022, US president Joe Biden signed The Medical Marijuana and Cannabidiol Research Expansion Act, a federal policy breakthrough that removed many barriers to cannabis research.
Before the new law, researching marijuana was challenging in the US as scientists needed approval from multiple agencies, which could sometimes take years.
Despite marijuana's continued classification as a Schedule I substance, the new legislation facilitates trials and development of new FDA-approved drugs that use marijuana or CBD. This is a significant step toward understanding cannabis's medicinal properties and potential therapeutic uses.
"Any act which improves cannabinoids research is relevant, mainly after the years of prohibition," says Bastos. Though this is a historic first step to facilitate cannabis research, more needs to happen within government and regulatory agencies to improve safety and access in the medical cannabis community.
Researchers, clinicians, and regulatory officials must collaborate to ensure that phytocannabinoid products meet necessary therapeutic and safety standards. This can be achieved by:
- Conducting well-designed clinical trials
- Establishing guidelines for the production, labeling, and testing of cannabis
- Creating systems to monitor and report adverse events
- Collaborating on the development of education and information resources
By taking these steps, regulators and practitioners ensure that patients can access safe and effective phytocannabinoid products while protecting the public’s health.