While full prohibition of cannabis use is now limited to just four states, the plant’s capacity to be of medical and therapeutic use remains understudied. University of Tulsa chemistry junior Diego Fernandez is exploring new ways to synthesize a safe and beneficial cannabis product.
Through TU’s Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge (TURC) and Chemistry Summer Undergraduate Research Program (CSURP), Fernandez is studying cannabinoid synthesis. TURC is a university program that funds and supports undergraduate student research, while CSURP partners chemistry students conducting research with faculty mentors.
With guidance from Syed Hussaini, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, Fernandez is focused on developing an efficient method of synthesizing cannabinol (CBN) from delta-8-THC. During his research, Fernandez has given presentations at the American Chemical Society National Meeting and Exposition and the National Conference on Undergraduate Research. Fernandez used his platform at these conferences to educate other scientists on cannabinoids and raise awareness about the value of his research, which is ongoing in TU’s Oxley College of Health & Natural Sciences.
“Perhaps it’s so captivating partly because of the taboo nature of the cannabis plant and the special molecules it produces. Its stigma has now diminished from what it previously was but traces of it remain,” Fernandez said. “I was surprised when I first heard the project was proposed and jumped at the opportunity to work on it.”
A Tulsa native, Fernandez’s decision to attend TU was heavily influenced by the strength of the science programs and the research opportunities given to undergraduates. An important motive behind Fernandez’s research of cannabinoid synthesis is that many scientists avoid the topic because of false assumptions that exploring anything cannabis related is likely illegal. However, Hussaini believes when the data is published, other scientists will join Fernandez in researching this undervalued drug.
“Legal issues are too tiring for scientists, so they choose the easy path and continue working on their other projects,” said Hussaini. “Our research would allow them to see at least a few cannabinoid examples that they would know they can work with.”
A contributing factor to the general stigma around the topic of cannabis is the safety associated with illegal drugs that are marketed as synthetic cannabis but are not actually extracted from the cannabis plant. These substances are often illicitly manufactured with harmful ingredients that do not produce the same effects as cannabinoids. CBN is a legal cannabinoid that offers therapeutic and medicinal benefits. Fernandez’s research is a positive step toward encouraging more scientists to research cannabinoids and addressing the growing demand for their benefits.
“CBN specifically has therapeutic potential as a sleep aid and appetite stimulant,” Fernandez said. “Investigating different synthetic methods for producing these minor cannabinoids, which naturally occur in minimal quantities within the plant, can provide the industry with a variety of methods of supplying increasing demand for these substances.”
In his research, Fernandez is trying different methods of aromatizing delta-8-THC to determine which is the most efficient. Identifying an efficient method of synthesizing CBN from delta-8-THC will increase availability of the drug to people who could benefit from its effects. Once an optimal method of synthesis is identified, additional studies can gather data on the safety and efficacy of CBN with the goal of the product becoming commercially available.
“There is more control in the laboratory when it comes to quality. We can also easily test purity of our products using sophisticated instruments available at TU,” Hussaini said. “In general, cannabinoids are considered a relatively safe option for treating health issues. Therefore, once more studies have been done and CBN is proven to be safe and effective, our method would be ready to be scaled up for commercial use.”
The university is investing in commercialization of intellectual property through the new Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which was established in February by TU’s Collins College of Business. The center facilitates innovation and ideas and provides seed funding for businesses started by students, alumni and faculty as research like Fernandez’s continues.