To say UBC Okanagan student Justin Pearson had to knock down some walls in his efforts to study the medicinal properties of marijuana at UBCO is putting it lightly.
But the 22-year-old Lake Country resident wasn’t going to take no for an answer, not when his research was directly related to the treatment of his mother’s cancer with cannabis oil and not when she had seen miraculous results from using the oil, derived from medicinal marijuana.
“It wasn’t easy,” admitted Pearson this week as he awaited final test results of his research project, aimed at identifying the medicinal properties in different strains of marijuana and different times of growth. “Time and time again it felt like I was running into concrete walls and then I would go back to the drawing board and try a different approach. I spent the greater part of eight months chatting with different professors and finding out it would be very difficult to get approval and also to trying to find a professor who was open-minded enough to take me on with a project that was based off my own interests.”
The normal protocol for a fourth year student who wants to graduate with honours is to become a researcher on an established project at the university. But Pearson had long been motivated to help his mother. When he was in Grade 9 his mom became ill and over the past eight years, she went from a mis-diagnosis to being given just months to live with ovarian cancer to having her cancer go into remission, after she began taking cannabis oil.
Her initial sickness had prompted Justin to dedicate himself to a life in medicine to help her. As his mother struggled with her health Justin graduated from George Elliot Secondary and began his post-secondary studies at UBCO with a major in biology. Soon the family would begin treatment with cannabis oil and her cancer went into remission. By this time Justin was more focussed than ever on entering the medical field. In his third year at UBCO he began trying to find support to study medicinal marijuana as part of his studies. After months of trying to find a professor to sponsor his research, Pearson began talking with chemistry professor Dr. Paul Shipley, an associate professor in UBCO’s chemistry department.
“Justin fought for a good year to do the project and I think it’s a very good project,” said Shipley in an interview with the Capital News this week. “It’s not an insignificant thing to get licensed to work with cannabis plants or the extract on our campus. But he found a way to do it. I gave him a list of things he needed to accomplish to get approval. If you take someone and say ‘you can’t do this for these reasons’ and then they solve those things…well in that case you move forward.”
The project interested Shipley on a few levels: As a chemistry professor, the study of plant chemistry is something that his students’ research. That the plant in question was marijuana made this project different, but when it comes to chemistry and science, the professor was hooked.
“Plant chemistry is something that we study,” he said. “This is a different plant chemistry project. But it’s compelling and a very interesting project. We’re not trying to cure cancer with this project. The project has specific short-term goals that are very achievable. Justin has scientific questions he is bringing to the table and we designed experiments to answer them.”
In a nutshell, Pearson is attempting to see how the properties of cannabis oil change in different strains of marijuana and in the length of time the plant grows. If his thesis is correct, patients could potentially use a certain strain of the plant to treat a specific disease.
“Knowing that within a certain strain or if you harvest it at a certain (time) it produces a certain cannabinoid profile, and you can pair the two together,” he said. “Someone at home or some company could harvest that plant at a time that fits the profile you need within your medicine. If everything goes in accordance with my initial hypothesis it would be pretty exciting because you could culture your medicine towards your ailment.”
To get approval, Pearson had to work with the plants off campus and also found a lab to study the cannabis oil that he creates. He found a partner in Keystone Labs out of Edmonton (see sidebar) who have been testing his samples and are in the final stages of sending Pearson his results.
The research project will mark a milestone for Pearson, who is more immersed in medicinal marijuana than he ever could have imagined.
“The reality is coming into my first year I never thought I would be doing research on anything, let alone marijuana,” he said. “The direction it’s taken me with respect to my mother’s situation, it has sparked this profound interest in the plant. The healing properties to me as a non-expert seem to be very vast, almost endless. It seems incredible and that’s why I’m so interested. It isn’t a very well-understood plant. The medicinal properties are just coming to light. I find it crazy that a plant that can help can also be deemed such a terrible drug. But as the focus with the plant shifts more to the medicinal side I would hope you would see less of the drug side being recognized and more of a clear distinction between the medicinal side and the drug side.”
Justin Pearson will present the findings of his research project on April 27 at UBCO. The presentation is open to the public.