A man in a lab coat standing in front of plants.

Can cannabis cure what ails you? Alberta pot producer teams up with Harvard to find out

Food and Agriculture
Published On
May 28, 2019

An Edmonton company is teaming up with Harvard University in hopes of proving the purported healing powers of cannabis.

Atlas Biotechnologies announced Tuesday that it is a founding partner of Harvard’s new International Phytomedicines and Medical Cannabis Institute, where clinical trials will be done to test the efficacy of various cannabis formulations for treating specific ailments.

Atlas, which owns Atlas Growers Ltd. and has a licensed production facility west of Edmonton, will provide up to $3 million over three years in product and research grants for the university in Cambridge, Mass., to use in trials on patients with chronic pain and neurological conditions.

“Everybody thinks it can cure everything. But the problem is you don’t have the scientific evidence for all of this yet,” said Wil Ngwa, director of Harvard Global Health Catalyst and a professor in radiation oncology at Harvard Medical School.

Ngwa said he is particularly excited about the potential effectiveness of cannabis in managing the side-effects of cancer treatment.

He believes all licensed producers should follow the lead of Atlas and put money into funding scientific research.

“If you are a grower and you’re not doing this, you’re going to be left behind. Because you have to do this,” Ngwa said. “Really, it is time. You cannot keep just using something blindly. You want to have that evidence.”

Use of medical cannabis is growing rapidly around the world, with patients claiming it helps with anxiety, chronic pain, seizures, side-effects from cancer treatments, and other conditions.

But with little hard scientific evidence to back their claims, the medical community remains skeptical, and many doctors won’t prescribe it.

Atlas president and CEO Sheldon Croome said during a tour of the company’s 38,000-square-foot Lac Ste. Anne facility Tuesday that he wants to create the world’s “most trusted” cannabis products, and doing so means proving they do exactly what they are designed to do.

“Those trials will either prove that our formulation works, or that it doesn’t,” Croome said.

“I think this is a truly massive relationship for us. It’s groundbreaking.”

Croome acknowledged that the process will be timely and expensive, but is confident the results will open new markets for Atlas around the world in the multibillion-dollar industry.

The lack of hard science on cannabis means producers are currently not allowed to advertise that their products can treat specific ailments.

“It’s going to take a few years to really prove the efficacy, I think, to the standard that doctors and pharmacists want to see. Which is ultimately what we’re trying to do,” Croome said.

“But we do believe that within a year we’ll have some really good efficacy data we can use that will push the envelope.”

Atlas got its initial sales licence from Health Canada in December to obtain, sell and distribute cannabis products, but the company chose to use that licence to sell exclusively to medical patients rather than enter the recreational market.

The company expects to produce 5,500 kilograms of dried cannabis annually at its Lac Ste. Anne facility, though its primary focus is on refining the plant in-house into pure, isolated cannabinoid concentrates and specialized medical formulations after its own polling found 80 per cent of customers are moving from smoking dried flowers to using extracts.

Croome said it’s not just doctors, but also potential patients who are waiting for the hard science before they trust medical cannabis.

“There’s a lot of people that don’t want to take something unless they know 100 per cent what it’s going to do,” he said.

This is not the first time Atlas has partnered with a post-secondary institution. In September, the company announced the Cannabis Waste Project partnership with the University of Alberta, which aims to develop strategies for converting cannabis waste into electricity on site and explore responsible water management practices in cannabis production.

Atlas plans to roll out its Lac Ste. Anne facility in three phases, with the potential to eventually exceed a million square feet. The company is also working on expanding into Europe, Croome said.