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Disease Burden Growing as Vector Insects Adapt to Climate Change

by Zadie Neufville

The following article was published by InterPress Serice (IPS) on April 18, 2017
KINGSTON, Jamaica, (IPS)
– There were surprised gasps when University of the West Indies (UWI) Professor John Agard told journalists at an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) meeting in late November 2016 that mosquitoes were not only living longer but were “breeding in septic tanks underground”.

For many, it explained why months of fogging at the height of Zika and Chikungunya outbreaks had done little to reduce mosquito populations in their various countries. The revelation also made it clear that climate change would force scientists and environmental health professionals to spend more time studying new breeding cycles and finding new control techniques for vector insects.

The Aedes Aegypti mosquito no longer breed breeds primarily in clean water and have evolved to breed in septic tanks and pit latrines they fly out to feed.

Jump to March 31, 2017 when the UWI and the government of Jamaica opened the new Mosquito Control and Research Unit at the Mona Campus in Kingston, to investigate new ways to manage and eradicate mosquitoes. Its existence is an acknowledgement that the region is looking for improved management and control strategies.

Agard was reporting on a study by the late Dave Chadee, a co-author on the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report and UWI professor. The study examined evolutionary changes in the life cycle of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which spreads the yellow and dengue fevers as well as the chikungunya and Zika viruses.

“We found out that in higher temperatures, the mosquito’s breeding cycle shortens. They go through more cycles during the season and they produce more offspring. The mosquitoes, however, are a little smaller,” Agard told journalists.

Even more worrisome were Chadee’s findings on the longevity of the “evolved” mosquitoes – 100 days instead of the 30 days they were previously thought to survive. The study also found that mosquitoes that survived longer than 90 days could produce eggs and offspring that were born transmitters, raising new concerns.

Alarming as these findings were, they were only the latest on the evolutionary strategies of vector insect populations in the Caribbean. A study published in February 2016 revealed that the triatomino (or vinchuca), the vector insects for Chagas disease, were breeding twice a year instead of only in the rainy season. And before that in 2011, Barbadian Environmental officers found mosquitoes breeding in junction boxes underground.

Sebastian Gourbiere, the researcher who led the Chagas study, pointed to the need for regional governments to re-examine their vector control methods if they are to effectively fight these diseases.

“The practical limitations that the dual threat poses outweigh the capabilities of local vector teams,” he said in response to questions about the control of Chagas disease.

Caribbean scientists and governments had already been warned. The IPCC’s AR 5 (2013) acknowledged the sensitivity of human health to shifts in weather patterns and other aspects of the changing climate.

“Until mid-century climate change will act mainly by exacerbating health problems that already exist. New conditions may emerge under climate change, and existing diseases may extend their range into areas that are presently unaffected,” the report said.

Gourbiere agrees with Agard and other regional researchers that there is need for solutions that are primarily focused on vector controls: eradication and effective controls of the Aedes aegypti could also eliminate the diseases they spread.

The failure of the newest vector control strategies also forced health professionals to revisit the old, but proven techniques developed with the guidance of researchers like Chadee, whose work on dengue and yellow fever, malaria and most recently the Zika virus had helped to guide the development of mosquito control, surveillance and control strategies in the Caribbean.

And while Zika brought with it several other serious complications like microcephaly, which affects babies born to women infected by the virus, and Guillain Barré Syndrome, the threats also exposed more serious concerns. The rapid spread of the viruses opened the eyes of regional governments to the challenges of emerging diseases and of epidemics like ebola and H1N1.

But it was the World Health Organisation (WHO) that raised concerns about the status and possible effects of the Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) – a group of communicable diseases including the Zika virus – which affect more than a billion people in 149 countries each year but for which there are no treatments.

NTDs include Dengue, Chic-V and Chagas Disease and until the last outbreak in 2014 that killed more than 6,000 people, Ebola was among them. In the previous 26 outbreaks between 1976 and 2013, only 1,716 people in sub-Saharan African nations were infected, WHO data showed.

Now the Caribbean is changing its approach to the study and control of vector insects. So while there are no widespread infections of Chagas disease, UWI is preparing to begin its own studies on the triatomino and the disease it transmits.

An addition to UWI’s Task Force formed just over a year ago to “aggressively eliminate” breeding sites for the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the Mosquito Unit is expected to build on Professor Chadee’s groundbreaking research.

“From dealing with the consequences of Chikungunya, Dengue and Zika on our population to managing the potentially harmful effects of newly discovered viruses, the benefits of establishing a unit like this will produce significant rewards in the protection of national and regional health,” UWI Mona Professor Archibald McDonald said at the launch.

Zika had been infecting thousands of people in Asia and Africa for decades before it made its devastating appearance in Brazil and other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. Zika also made its way to the US and several European nations in 2016, before being confirmed in Thailand on Sept 30.

Mapping Zika

Not surprising, as in its 3rd AR, and most recently in the 5th AR the IPCC projected increases in threats to human health, particularly in lower income populations of mainly tropical and sub-tropical countries. Those findings are also supported by more recent independent studies including Mapping global environmental suitability for Zika virus, published by the University of Oxford (UK) in February 2016.

By combining climate data, mosquito prevalence and the socio-economic makeup of each region, researchers found the likelihood of the Zika virus gaining a foothold worldwide to be “extremely high”. The team led by Moritz Kraemer also concluded that Zika alone could infect more than a third of the world’s population.

The findings noted that shifts in the breeding patterns of the Aedes family of mosquitos allowed it to take advantage of newly ‘favourable conditions’ resulting from climate change. The environmentally suitable areas now stretch from the Caribbean to areas of South America; large portions of the United States to sizeable areas of sub-Saharan Africa; more than two million square miles of India “from its northwest regions through to Bangladesh and Myanmar”; the Indochina region, southeast China and Indonesia and includes roughly 250,000 square miles of Australia.

“Globally, we predict that over 2.17 billion people live in areas that are environmentally suitable for ZIKV transmission,” Dr. Kraemar said.

Aedes albopictus and known as the Asian tiger mosquito, one of the most effective vector insects for mosquito diseases

The Aedes aegypti mosquitoes’ efficiency at spreading diseases in urban areas and population densities are believed to be the main factors driving the rapid spread of the Zika virus. Other studies have found the Zika virus in 19 species of the Aedes family, with the Asian Tiger Mosquito (Aedes albopictus) – which has now spread its range to Europe –  likely another efficient vector.

Back in the Caribbean, Chadee’s findings on the adaptation of the Aedes aegypti mosquito from clean water breeders to breeding in available waters is expected to drive the development of regional strategies that are better suited to the evolving environment of a changing climate.

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SPARKS Plugs Gap in Caribbean Climate Research

by Zadie Neufville


The following was published by IPS on March 11, 2017

KINGSTON, Jamaica, Mar 11 2017 (IPS)
– On Nov. 30 last year, a new high-performance ‘Super Computer’ was installed at the University of the West Indies (UWI) during climate change week. Dubbed SPARKS – short for the Scientific Platform for Applied Research and Knowledge Sharing – the computer is already churning out the ‘big data’ Caribbean small island states (SIDS) need to accurately forecast and mitigate the effects of climate change on the region.

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Principal of UWI Mona,  Professor Archibald Gordon.

Experts are preparing the Caribbean to mitigate the devastating impacts – rising seas, longer dry spells, more extreme rainfall and potentially higher impact tropical cyclones – associated with climate change. The impacts are expected to decimate the economies of the developing states and many small island states, reversing progress and exacerbating poverty. Observers say the signs are already here.

The system will help scientists to “better evaluate potential risk and impacts and effectively mitigate those risks as we build more resilient infrastructure.” –UWI Professor Archibald Gordon

Before SPARKS, regional scientists struggled to produce the kinds of credible data needed for long-term climate projections. Only a few months ago, UWI’s lack of data processing capacity restricted researchers to a single data run at a time, said Jay Campbell, research fellow at the climate research group . Each data run would take up to six months due to the limited storage capacity and lack of redundancy, he said noting: “If anything went wrong, we simply had to start over.”

Immediately, SPARKS answered the need for the collection, analysis, modelling, storage, access and dissemination of climate information in the Caribbean. Over the long term, climate researchers will be able to produce even more accurate and reliable climate projections at higher spatial resolutions to facilitate among other things, the piloting and scaling up of innovative climate resilient initiatives.

Scientists in the region are using ‘big data’ to forecast drought and dry sells for farmers and others in the agricultural sector.

So, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produces its next global assessment report in 2018, there will be much more information from the Caribbean, making SPARKS a critical tool in the region’s fight against climate change.

Not only has the new computer – described as one of the fastest in the Caribbean – boosted the region’s climate research capabilities by plugging the gaping hole in regional climate research, UWI Mona’s principal Professor Archibald Gordon said, “It should help regional leaders make better decisions in their responses and adaptation strategies to mitigate the impact of climate change”.

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Photo: Zadie Neufville: Caribbean scientists are using ‘big data’ to forecast drought and dry spells for farmers and others in the agricultural sector.

The expert underscore the need for “big data” to provide the information they need to improve climate forecasting in the short, medium and long term. Now, they have the capacity and the ability to complete data runs that usually take six months, in just two days.

The system will help scientists to better “evaluate potential risk and impacts and effectively mitigate those risks as we build more resilient infrastructure,” Gordon said.

As the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) reported in June 2016 as “the 14th consecutive month of record heat for land and oceans; and the 378th consecutive month with temperatures above the 20th century average,” regional scientists have committed to proving information to guide Caribbean governments on the actions they need to lessen the impact of climate change.

The region has consistently sought to build its capacity to provide accurate and consistent climate data. Efforts were ramped up after a September 2013 ‘rapid climate analysis’ in the Eastern Caribbean identified what was described as “a number of climate change vulnerabilities and constraints to effective adaptation”.

The USAID study identified among other things “the lack of accurate and consistent climate data to understand climate changes, predict impacts and plan adaptation measures”. To address the challenges, the WMO and the Caribbean Institute for Meteorology and Hydrology (CIMH), with funding from USAID, established the Regional Climate Centre in Barbados.

The launch of the new computer is yet another step in overcoming the constraints. It took place during a meeting of the IPCC at UWI’s regional headquarters at Mona – significant because it signalled to the international grouping that the Caribbean was now ready and able to produce the big data needed for the upcoming 2018 report.

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UWI Mona Campus, Jamaica

Head of the Caribbean Climate Group Professor Michael Taylor explained in an interview that the credibility and accuracy of climate data require fast computer processing speeds, fast turn-around times as well as the ability to run multiple data sets at higher resolution to produce information that regional decision-makers need.

“Climate research and downscaling methods will no longer be limited to the hardware and software,” he said, trying but failing to contain his excitement.

SPARKS also puts Jamaica and the UWI way ahead of their counterparts in the English-speaking Caribbean and on par with some of the leading institutions in the developed world. This improvement in computing capacity is an asset for attracting more high-level staff and attracting students from outside the region. Crucially, it aids the university’s push to establish itself as a leading research-based institution and a world leader in medicinal marijuana research.

“This opens up the research capability, an area the university has not done in the past. Before now, the processing of big data could only be done with partners overseas,” Professor Taylor said.

Aside from its importance to crunching climate data for the IPCC reports, SPARKS is revolutionising DNA sequencing, medicinal, biological and other data driven research being undertaken at the University. More importantly, UWI researchers agree that a supercomputer is bringing together the agencies at the forefront of the regional climate fight.

What is clear, SPARKS is a “game-changer and a big deal” for climate research at the regional level and for UWI’s research community.

END

New Approach to Funding Tertiary Education: Shaping the 21st Century Mona Campus

KINGSTON: Nov 2016 [MONA News}: The leadership of The University of the West Indies, Mona Campus, is on a mission to make this the region’s most modern and sought-after institution, using a development model which could become the go-to for other campuses and institutions.

In recent years, there have been several changes: a new medical building, new halls of residence, restaurants and banking facilities. Strapped for cash but determined not to borrow, Mona’s Principal Professor Archibald McDonald and his team are pursuing a series of public/private Partnerships that have breathed new life into the 68 year-old institution.

The slow steady pace of development is being ramped up: old buildings are giving way to new ones, old facilities refreshed and equipment upgraded. The plans are as ambitious as they are optimistic and expensive, but the University is racing full speed ahead. Surprisingly, the institution is not spending a single cent. Speaking with Mona Magazine recently, Professor McDonald outlined a raft of initiatives that aim to reshape the sprawling Mona Campus into an ultra-modern institution offering its students a world-class education in line with corporate needs, the very best in accommodation, student services and comfort.

Mona’s student housing development model is now seen as the standard for cash-strapped colleges and institutions, and is to be rolled out across the entire UWI system. Who would have known that a rather contentious induction speech just over three years ago would result in a prolific and rewarding relationship between the Mona Campus and the private sector.

“During my induction speech I noted that governments over the years had not done enough for the University… and I challenged the private sector to do more. It has paid off,” Professor McDonald said with a chuckle. He noted that the “relationship between the private sector and the university has never been closer”. On one hand, UWI is getting what it needs in development: technological and industry support through several Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) and Private/Public Partnerships, while the investors salve their corporate responsibility needs and makes a profit.

A partnership between The UWI, Mona and 138 Student Living – a subsidiary of K-Limited – to refurbish, remodel and operate its halls of residence, has revolutionised the management of student housing. Irvine Hall is being refurbished, demolishing some of the old buildings to make way for new ones, adding another 1,100 rooms to bring world-class accommodation and ‘home comforts’ to campus living. And this is only the beginning.

The agreement for the construction of 1,584 houses at a cost of $4 billion over three years should increase the number of rooms on the Mona Campus to about 6,000. The first 480 units have already been delivered, 500 will be handed over soon and the balance, scheduled for handover in 2017. This makes the University the largest single owner of ‘hotel’ rooms on the island.

“Because of the cash flow problems we have not been able to maintain the facilities properly, so outsourcing gives us the opportunity to do the renovations which are necessary and have world-class accommodation for our students,” Professor McDonald explained.

New housing is only one component of the overall strategy to increase revenues, Mona’s principal continued: “We are trying to increase the number of international students. It has been slow, but what we have done is to attract more regional students especially from Trinidad and Tobago. Whenever you bring students from outside of Jamaica, you need to provide accommodation for them”.

K Limited and UWI’s other partners will recover their investments from the savings and earnings. Ambitious as this is, it is only the tip of the iceberg.

The next three to five years will see major changes on Campus, among them the conversion of the 15-room Mona Visitors’ Lodge & Conference Centre into a 150-room hotel; and the development of College Common. Replacing the Mona Visitors’ Lodge will improve the offerings at what is already a “very nice place for weddings” to provide modern conference facilities and a one-of-a-kind wedding location.

Over at College Common, the UWI-owned residential property, things are about to change. The 100-acre property which is currently home to some of the University’s senior academic and adminstrative staff, is a laid-back community of colonial-style homes on up to an acre of land. Its current layout makes it difficult to secure and maintain, Professor McDonald said, noting: “College Common has been there for 60-odd years, it is exactly as the British left it, only it is much worse as the houses are in disrepair.”

A mix of town houses, apartments and up-scale homes, some of which will be offered as high-end rentals to companies and Embassies, will replace the run-down old houses, provide staff with updated facilities and the university with much-needed revenue to continue funding the extensive development plans that are being rolled out.

There is no doubt this project could reap big benefits. After all, the Mona Campus sits on some prime lands, in a coveted zip code. And pulling everything together, an ultra-modern Campus/Student centre housing a modern auditorium for university functions including the annual graduation exercise, the housing of the students’ union, a place where students meet, study or just hang out. In addition to the coffee shops, meeting and reading rooms, the centre is expected to be a hub of activity for the 18,000 students on roll.

But plans would not be complete without an adequate supply of water and cost-effective energy. In fact, the co–generation plant that is already cooling several of the buildings on campus will also provide electricity. Once completed, the plant is expected to only reduce the campus’ dependence on the national grid, and slash energy costs by as much as 50 percent – that translates to roughly $50 million dollars in monthly savings.

In addition, the University’s well-publicised water woes are about to disappear. A new well providing 750,000 gallons a day will more than satisfy the campus’ 500,000-gallon daily requirement, saving an additional $20 million in water charges. With all these coming together, Professor McDonald is delighted.

“If you were to look at our audited statements we would not be able to afford all of this,” he said. But the private/public partnership agreements have allowed the University to improve campus facilities and the value of the services on offer.

“I see this as a new model for the funding of tertiary education,” McDonald said, noting that institutions need money to stay competitive amidst growing competition.

And how much will all this development cost? On the conservative side, more than US$2 billion. What is important, however, is that The University will not spend ‘one red cent’, as the saying goes. As Professor McDonald puts it, Corporate Jamaica is finally seeing the value of partnering with the institution.

The benefits are mutual, ranging from product design, development and testing to skills transfer, professional development and income generation; and for students, industry-specific training, internships and scholarships.

Investors including local corporations like the Jamaica Public Service, the French giant Total, and US marijuana company CITIVA, all fund projects that improve their products and outputs, and add to their bottom line. And the improvements to the Mona Campus are not all.

Over at the University Hospital of the West Indies, in addition to the installation of a fully computerised medical filing system, slated for completion early next year, architectural designs for a major rebuilding project are on the ‘drawing board’. Several buildings will be demolished and replaced, Professor McDonald said.

This year, as the University prepares to begin clinical trials of marijuana extracts to treat epilepsy in children and chronic pain; the expansion and relocation of the Western Jamaica Medical Campus has begun and negotiations are underway for the construction of a modern medical facility on the site of the new campus to take advantage of the growing medical tourism market.

Even so, The UWI Mona continues to look for ways to leverage the many opportunities available, with entrepreneurs with the acumen and fortitude to take up the challenges. Take the Usain Bolt Track for instance. There are plans for a gym and winter sports centre around the state-of-the art running track.

“We just need someone to manage the process, but then that might be for my successor,” Professor McDonald said thoughtfully.

And there are so many things to do. With world-class athletes and universities lining up to experience the training that made the ‘Big Man’ a legend – and the opportunities presented by an Olympic-sized swimming pool –Mona’s standing as the home of the athlete dubbed the ‘Living Legend” is destined to soar.

-Zadie Neufville

Air Pollution Leaves Traces In The Brain

by Zadie Neufville

The following was published in Spanish by SciDev.com
Researchers at UK’s University of Lancaster have found toxic nanoparticles similar to that associated with Alzheimer’s disease could come from industrial air pollution which may enter the brain by the nasal passage, suggesting a new environmental risk factor in neurodegenerative diseases.

Traces of magnetite, a magnetic iron oxide compound and a very common air pollutant, are known to be present naturally in human brain and derived from the iron used in normal brain function.

According to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on Sept 5, researchers measured magnetic samples and examined their sizes and shape to determine the source of the particles.

In analysing brain tissues from 37 people in Manchester, England, and Mexico City, aged between 3 years old and 92, the researchers observed that most of the magnetite particles were rounded small nonosphere (ranged from less than 5 nanometers to more than 100 nanometers), while biological magnetite are angular crystals and with a diameter from 50 to 150 nanometers.

The shape responds to the origin of the particles, “because they were formed as molten droplets of material from combustion sources, such as car exhausts, industrial processes, open fires,” Barbara Maher, lead author of the study, told SciDev.Net.

In the study, researchers also detected other metal particles like platinum, cobalt and nickel, and since none of them occurs naturally in the brain, their findings suggest that those particles could come from motor vehicle exhaust.

“Scientists have always believed the metal was formed in the body. The surprise is finding that they can enter the brain via inhalation,” Maher said.

Earlier studies suggested possible links between high levels of toxic magnetite in the brains of people who lived in highly polluted areas and Alzheimers disease and dementia. She noted: “These findings do not particularly prove that air pollution will cause brain diseases”.

“We need to do more work to see if this is a cause of brain disease,” Maher added.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) air pollution kills 1.3 million people globally each year.

Denise Eldemire-Shearer, a professor at the University of the West Indies, said the study raised the need for critical research given the “ageing populations and the increased importance of dementia research, the cost and the possible associated social costs”.

“We look forward to the wider study”, she said noting that the numbers of the individuals involved in the study were small.

Link to PNAS study

Unravelling the Science behind Ganja

The original article appears in UWI Pelican Magazine

Cannabis also called Solomon’s Weed, Ganja or Marijuana, is hailed as God’s gift to medicine but only a handful of institutions including UWI’s Mona Campus are studying the properties and possible medicinal applications

By Zadie Neufville
The University of the West Indies has revived the ganja research programme it began in the 1970s as it prepares to launch Jamaica as a global “powerhouse” for cannabis research; as famous for its products and services as it already is for reggae and the good ‘ol sensi weed’.

UWI’s Mona Campus in Kingston is one of the few places in the world where marijuana research can take place from plant breeding, through to clinical trials. The country’s international reputation – the ganja culture, music and athletic success – has brought many to the UWI in search of research collaborations.IMG_7735_1

There is new energy and excitement as researchers leverage over four decades of experience in cannabis research, even as they await the completion of regulations that will guide recent amendments to the Dangerous Drug Act.

“We have the knowledge and we have the expertise to make Jamaica and the Mona Campus a major centre, the leading authority and we are positioned to use our Jamaica brand to drive the programme,” Principal of the UWI’s Mona Campus Professor Archibald McDonald, said in an interview with the Pelican.

Best known for the euphoric effect of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), Cannabis is said to contain more than 60 other chemical compounds. It is these other elements that the UWI and its partners want to exploit in its mission to treat a host of complaints for which modern medicines have no answer.

Researchers are particularly excited by the possibilities of the cannabinoids (CBDs), a group of chemicals referred to as terpenophenolic compounds, also known as terpins.

Scientists at UWI’s research partner Citiva Medical are also excited by the promise of ‘terpens’, particularly after the team successfully developed cannabis-derived products to treat a number of ailments. Citiva is the company behind Charlotte’s Web – a strain of cannabis with less than 0.3 % THC – which is being used to treat paediatric epilepsy.

Prior to being treated with the cannabis extract, 8-year-old Charlotte Figi reportedly suffered up to 300 seizures a day due to a rare form of epilepsy, even while on traditional medicines. The extract from Charlotte’s Web and continued success of the treatments using the oil is one of several success stories from Citiva.

The strain of cannabis named Charlotte’s Web for the little American girl, is being grown at the UWI and will be studied with a view to standardising the extracts. The aim is to ensure that every cannabis plant used for medicine has exactly “the same levels of the specific chemical compounds” required to target specific illnesses, with the same results.

In the medicinal cannabis world, Citiva’s executive director Josh Stanley is a rock star. Described as ‘telegenic’ in his approach to the marketing of cannabis as the future of medicine, both Stanley and the equally visionary McDonald share the belief that research in cannabis goes way beyond smoking the weed.

“We are interested in the whole plant, getting away from the single compound and into the promise of its biology – a multi-compound approach to its natural properties,” Stanley said.

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Professor Archibald McDonald, Principal – UWI Mona

McDonald noted: “We are using our permit effectively to help us to establish a Centre of excellence in cannabis research in the Caribbean. We want the Mona Campus to become the leader in Cannabis research internationally”.

 

And there is no shortage of researchers willing to help him build UWI’s reputation and join the quest to find treatment for a long list of complaints. In addition to examining the use of cannabis in the treatment of diabetes, epilepsy, cancer and chronic pain, the UWI Medicinal Cannabis Research Group (UWI-MCRG) is also contemplating the possibilities for its use in anaesthesia and psychiatry among other areas.

Since 2010 UWI’s Forensic Unit under the leadership of Professor Wayne McLaughlin has diligently mapped the DNA of cannabis to among other things, help police identify key ganja growing areas on the island. These days, the data is being repurposed and put to more beneficial uses, he said.

McLaughlin noted that chemical and gene profiling have allowed researchers to classify cannabis plants not only by the names the farmers give them, but also by the plants’ colouring, their unique chemical compositions as well as by the genes that will make them less susceptible to contamination from heavy metals and other impurities.

“Now we are not only able to track the plants but also look at other genes that are important to the plant and its survival. We can now identify those plants with high and low THC and CBD levels as well as identify male and female plants,” the forensic scientist said.

The UWI-MC Research Group are light years ahead of the authorities and were ready with scores of project ideas covering all areas of medicine and science by the time the University received its exemption permit last year.
“The lobby (for legalisation) had the widest cross section of people and professions I’ve ever seen,” Professor McDonald laughed. The result, he explained, is that the UWI is already working on scores of projects ranging from basic science studies to pre-clinical and clinical studies, all in an effort to expand knowledge of the therapeutic uses of cannabis.

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Marijuana researchers on the Caribbean island of Jamaica are planning to develop new pharmaceutical products following the partial decriminalisation of cannabis. (AP/David McFadden)

At the same time, the medicinal research is being enhanced by the ongoing chemical and DNA analyses of the plant. McLaughlin agreed that with so much of the gene sequencing and identification of the chemicals already done, the work done by his team has slashed several years from the expected start-up of clinical trials. It also makes possible the start of the planned Pain Clinic by year’s end, just about coinciding with the start of clinical trials at the University Hospital of the West Indies.

The United States medical marijuana industry is expected to earn as much as US 13billion dollars by 2019 up from US 2.7 billion dollars in 2014. It is expected that the UWI and indeed Jamaica can earn a significant share of the global market from pharmaceuticals, bringing jobs and much needed development. But there will be no products to smoke at the UWI’s Medical Research facilities, even with the 100 million US dollars in monthly sales the US State of Colorado reportedly makes from medical marijuana.

“We aim to change their perception that Jamaica is about a bunch of Rastas and white women getting high,” researcher Carole Lindsay said chuckling. She has been leading the chemical analysis of every strain of Cannabis the University collects from farmers.

A professional chemist, Lindsay noted that creating the chemical profiles of the plants found in Jamaica is critical to protecting both the country’s and the University’s interests.

“Our local strains of cannabis are vulnerable because we assume that with all the interest in ganja, people could be bringing in plants to grow them here. We also know that farmers have been doing their own cross breeding for years,” she explained.

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Ganja plants being destroyed by security forces.

Aside from ongoing research into the properties and effects of Cannabis, the UWI was among the first in the world to successfully develop medicines from the plant. Its work, going back to 1972 when ophthalmologist Albert Lockhart and pharmacologist Dr. Manley West began investigating the anecdotes of fishermen who attributed their exceptional night-vision to their consumption of ‘ganja teas’.

From their research, the Department of Pharmacology in 1987 released the Canasol (TM), eye drops to treat glaucoma and followed that success in later years by a number of pioneering marijuana-derived pharmaceuticals: Asmasol for asthma; Cantivert also used to treat glaucoma; Canavert for motion sickness and Cansens for treating viral infections.

“They (the products) were sold on the local market but we really never managed to export it because of the cannabis. But what it showed clearly, was that there are substances in ganja which can provide effective treatment of glaucoma and asthma,” McDonald, a surgeon by training said.

Much of the University’s work in Cannabis is unknown internationally because the laws that prohibited the use of marijuana severely hampered the University’s research programme as well as the marketing of the products.

In Jamaica, the ‘weed’ is also listed as a dangerous drug and until April 2016, possession attracted penalties of imprisonment. The 1961 UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs criminalised the possession of ganja, a plant that had been used for generations as traditional medicine by local healers and householders.

When parliament ratified the amendment to the Dangerous Drug Act on April 15, it revived decades old research ambitions at UWI and other local institutions. It also paved the way for a “broad permit” that facilitated the planting of the first legal cannabis plant, thereby establishing UWI’s own ‘ganja’ plot and officially initiating the production and testing of cannabis derived medicines.

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Rastafarians can freely use ‘ganja’ as a sacrament

The amendment that was inked on 6 February – birthdate of the late reggae icon Bob Marley – relaxed rules on the use of ganja on the island. Nowadays, possession of two ounces (56 grams) or less, no longer results in jail time. Rastafarians can freely use ‘ganja’ as a sacrament for the first time since the birth of their movement in the 1930s and householders are allowed to grow up to five plants.

In the months since, several companies have released a number of nutraceuticals and topical pain products derived from cannabis. Not withstanding, McDonald said, UWI is interested in the whole plant.

“Our interest is in unraveling the science behind ganja,” he said.

It’s a philosophy shared by its major partners including Citiva Medical, which Stanley a co-founder said, includes the belief “that the future of cannabinoid medicine lies in strict adherence to unraveling the science”.

As head of the UWI Cannabis Research Group, McDonald is expecting even more successes with new technologies, new investments, new partners and if negotiations go well, he is also looking forward to creating improved versions of Canasol and Asmasol.

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Strains of Charlotte’s Web grow in the facility at UWI as Citiva and the University unravel the secrets to producing consistent dosages of the chemicals found. Photo Z. Neufville

US Federal legislation classification of cannabis the plant as a class 1 drug has forced the Jamaican government to tread lightly, even as it granted permits to UWI and others. Regardless, the University is accelerating its research, construction of green houses, the cultivation of several species of cannabis and the signing of MOUs with agencies and organisations from across the globe.

 

There are several proposals awaiting the regulations and profiling must be done quickly to continue supporting the research and development. To aid the process, more than 600,000 US dollars have been spent to upgrade the equipment in the Toxicology lab.

“We are expecting that many products will be produced and have to be tested and quality checked for them to be marketed. We also expect the USDA will soon come up with regulations on cannabis-derived medicines and we are preparing to meet them,” Lindsay said.

Construction of the UWI Mona Cannabis Research Centre and supporting facilities to expand the institutions research capacity and house its partners is estimated to cost some US 4million dollars.

McDonald is expecting that funding from partners will equip and build the facility as “their contribution to UWI’s 40-year cannabis research legacy, accommodation and the prestige of brand-Jamaica”.

CAN JAMAICA MAKE UP FOR LOST GROUND IN CANNABIS RESEARCH FOLLOWING DECRIMINALISATION?

by Zadie Neufville

(This article was first published by Equal Times on Nov 3, 2015)
Following the partial decriminalisation of cannabis earlier this year, Jamaican scientists are harnessing more than 40 years of research in a bid to cash in on the lucrative global medical marijuana market.

Marijuana researchers on the Caribbean island of Jamaica are planning to develop new pharmaceutical products following the partial decriminalisation of cannabis. (AP/David McFadden)

Marijuana researchers on the Caribbean island of Jamaica are planning to develop new pharmaceutical products following the partial decriminalisation of cannabis. (AP/David McFadden)

As of April 2015, the possession of two ounces of marijuana, or less, is no longer an arrestable offence in Jamaica and the establishment of a Cannabis Licensing Authority is paving the way for the development of a set of rules and regulations to govern this burgeoning pharmaceutical industry, estimated to be worthUS$100 billion worldwide.

As a result, marijuana researchers on the island are hoping to develop new pharmaceutical products, almost four decades after several new medicines were developed and subsequently launched on the international market.

“We are not talking about smoking ganja (cannabis), we are looking to produce medicines that will help people,” Courtney Betty, Attorney at Law and head of Timeless Herbal Care Limited (THC), told Equal Times from his base in Canada.

Since 1972, Jamaican scientists at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Department of Pharmacology have studied the properties of cannabis, developing a number of pioneering products, including: Canasol, and later Cantivert, to treat glaucoma; Asmasol for asthma; and Canavert for motion sickness.

The products are successfully used in the Caribbean, Europe and Asia but remain illegal in the US because their active ingredient comes from cannabis sativa, one of three varieties of the cannabis plant.

“We (Jamaicans) were the pioneers in research of cannabis for commercial medical purposes in the 1970s, releasing Canasol in 1987,” said Dr Henry Lowe who owns several patents for medicinal products derived from cannabis and other local plants. His company, Medicanja, has already established state-of-the-art research facilities at UWI and will release several products next year, reviving the Cannabis Research Institute he and colleagues started in 2001.

Long overdue
It has been a long, slow walk to decriminalisation in Jamaica. Not long before researchers began exploring the beneficial properties of sensi weed, Jamaica’s most exalted strain of cannabis, the signing of the 1961 UN Convention on Narcotic Drugs criminalised the possession of ganja, which has been used as traditional medicine for generations in Jamaica.

Ganja plants being destroyed by security forces.

Ganja plants being destroyed by security forces.

A National Commission on Ganja was convened in September 2000. It noted evidence of the “therapeutic properties” of cannabis and concluded that “there is no doubt that ganja can have harmful effects, these do not warrant the criminalisation of thousands of Jamaicans for using it in ways and with beliefs that are deeply rooted in the culture of the people”.

The reforms, passed by parliament on 6 February 2015 on the birthday of the late reggae superstar Bob Marley, and ratified on 15 April 2015, were “long overdue” according to the country’s Justice Minister Mark Golding.

Subsequently, both UWI and the University of Technology (UTECH) have started their own cannabis projects. UWI has established Jamaica’s first legal cannabis plot, growing specific strains of the plant in a bid to identify DNA profiles of cannabis, to determine how various strains react with the human body and to identify best practises for growing cannabis, as well as to develop products in the treatment of various illnesses and diseases.

UTECH will collaborate with the Colorado-based US firm Ganja Labs [editor’s note: In January 2014, Colorado became the first place in the world to fully regulate the legal, recreational use of marijuana for adults] to research and experiment on new marijuana-based pharmaceuticals at a laboratory and greenhouse at their main campus in the capital city, Kingston.

With the new law allowing households to grow up to five plants, ordinary Jamaicans are looking to cash in, too. No longer will small amounts mean jail and a criminal record. And Rastafarians can freely use ganja for sacramental purposes for the first time since the founding of their movement in the 1930s.

For investors like Betty, a Jamaican-Canadian, the new law could “transform” the economy of this debt-ridden island, bringing prosperity to its 2.7 million-strong population: “Jamaica provides unlimited access to raw materials at a very good cost, and the knowledge. We believe this is a significant industry that has tremendous economic impact,” he said.

smokeing ganja
In September, Betty announced a US$100 million investment in Jamaica to develop medicinal cannabis products for the international market, some of which will hit the market this year.

Given its more than 40 years headstart, Jamaica could quickly exceed the earnings made by the state of Colorado, Betty told Equal Times. In 2014, Colorado earned US$700 million in marijuana sales from which the government took US$76 million in taxes and fees.

Lowe, who continues to seek new investors for Medicanja (which will announce its latest patents for nutraceuticals and pharmaceuticals in November) noted that Jamaica could become the international hub for cannabis research.

“Jamaica is ahead of the world. This opens opportunity in the areas of healthcare, and the production of high quality products for a variety of complaints,” he said.