Robert Laprairie

The science of medical marijuana

As the country prepares for the legalization of cannabis next year, the U of S is ramping up research into the healing effects of medical marijuana.

By James Shewaga

Assistant professor Robert Laprairie is leading a new lab in the College of Pharmacy and Nutrition that explores the effects of cannabinoids to help treat a wide range of diseases and disorders, after being appointed to a five-year term as GSK-CIHR Research Chair in Drug Discovery and Development on August 1. With medical marijuana use on the rise and recreational marijuana slated to become legal in Canada on July 1, 2018, Laprairie said the research field has quickly become more compelling and crucial.

“The research that will be conducted in my own lab, and in collaboration with other researchers at the U of S, is of the utmost importance,” said Laprairie, who is from Saskatoon and graduated with a Bachelor of Science Honours in Biochemistry in 2010 at the U of S before moving on to earn a master’s and PhD and complete a postdoctoral fellowship at The Scripps Research Institute in Florida in July. “Cannabinoids and marijuana are becoming an increasingly important part of the health and well-being of Canadians. In order to ensure that cannabinoids and marijuana are used appropriately as medicine, and in an effort towards harm reduction, this research will benefit the university, province and country.”

Laprairie’s research will support the work of the Cannabinoid Research Initiative of Saskatchewan, a multidisciplinary collaborative research project featuring experts in the Colleges of Pharmacy and Nutrition, Medicine, and Veterinary Medicine at the U of S. The new $5-million endowed research chair is supported by funding from GlaxoSmithKline’s (GSK) Pathfinders Fund for Leaders in Canadian Health Science Research, in partnership with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the U of S College of Pharmacy and Nutrition. It is one of only two such chairs in all of Canada within pharmacy schools.

Laprairie’s lab will focus on developing new synthetic cannabinoid compounds and characterizing the many cannabinoids present in marijuana. These may be used to help treat pain, addiction and anxiety, as well as everything from epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and post-traumatic stress disorder to Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease.

“I am extremely excited to get going in proper fashion,” said Laprairie, who also teaches pharmacology, pathophysiology and neuroscience courses at the U of S. “I have been applying to multiple granting bodies (CIHR, Epilepsy Canada, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada) and I am working to establish strong collaborations here at the U of S."

“The college has an excellent support network for new researchers such as myself and this will enable me to become very productive early on,” said Laprairie.

The recent additions of the likes of Laprairie and professor Ekaterina Dadachova—the Chair in Radio- pharmacy at the Fedoruk Centre for Nuclear Innovation—have helped bolster the research expertise and profile of the College of Pharmacy and Nutrition, according to dean and professor Kishor Wasan.

“We are extremely excited to successfully recruit research scientists of the calibre of Laprairie and Dadachova,” said Wasan. “These recruitments demonstrate the international reputation of our college’s research program and the impact we are making on the global stage. The recent additions of as two highly-funded research chairs are already making an impact on our research activity and research scope.”