Recent decades have witnessed a surge of attention directed at the medical applications of a lowly cluster of chemicals known as cannabinoids. Derived from members of the Cannabis genus of flowering plants, this group of chemicals has remained relatively understudied as a result of legal complications and cultural reservations. But one alum of Stony Brook University’s Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, Matthew Elmes ‘18, PhD, is working to combat the detrimental misconceptions and to educate the public about the wealth of medical benefits boasted by these fascinating chemicals.
Elmes’ academic track record is impressive. After completing his PhD, he went on to carry out postdoctoral work at Stony Brook. During his time at the University, Elmes published several articles contributing to the advancement of research on the function of fatty acid-binding proteins. But these days, Elmes is Director of New Product Development at CannaCraft, a seed-to-shelf cannabis producer and distributor located in Santa Rosa, California. The coast- and career-hopping biochemist shares the focus of his past and present research and his take on the multifaceted world of cannabis, as well as how CannaCraft has stepped up to meet the challenges posed to public health by the COVID-19 crisis.
Elmes didn’t initially set his sights on cannabis and cannabinoid research, but rather arrived there as a result of exploration and open-minded engagement with the previous work of others. “I began my PhD at Stony Brook in 2012, and at the time I did not have any specific goals to do research in cannabinoids,” Elmes shared. “When I began working with Drs. Dale Deutsch and Martin Kaczocha (who each have seminal discoveries related to endocannabinoid biology) I became completely enamored with the field at large and it seemed like a perfect fit for me.”
The work of Drs. Deutsch and Kaczocha provided a jumping-off point for Elmes’ own contributions to the field. “Shortly before I began my work at Stony Brook, Drs. Kaczocha and Deutsch discovered that a class of proteins known as the fatty acid-binding proteins (FABPs) act as aqueous shuttles for the endocannabinoids, essentially picking them up from the outside of the cell and dropping them off to various compartments within the cell,” Elmes said. “One of my early PhD projects was extrapolating this phenomenon to the phytocannabinoids THC and CBD, and in 2015 I published a paper in the Journal of Biological Chemistry demonstrating that these same FABP proteins in the brain are also responsible for shuttling phytocannabinoids throughout the cell. Later in my PhD, I discovered similar phytocannabinoid carrier proteins within the liver and linked this to the metabolism of these compounds,” a discovery that resulted in another published paper.
After completing his PhD, Elmes shifted slightly the focus of his work. “My postdoctoral work was also done at Stony Brook, but had a focus on preclinical drug development,” he explained. “Since FABPs in the brain transport the endocannabinoid anandamide to its intracellular degratory enzyme, blocking this transport step leads to reduced rates of anandamide breakdown and thus higher total anandamide levels, which results in potent anti-inflammatory and anti-pain effects. I was part of a collaboration between four lab groups at Stony Brook (Dr. Deutsch in Biochemistry, Dr. Kaczocha in Anesthesiology, Dr. Iwao Ojima in Chemistry, and Dr. Robert Rizzo in Applied Math) who aimed to develop small molecule inhibitors to these FABPs in order to modulate endocannabinoid system signaling and create a non-addictive, non-opioid pain killer drug. The compounds we created, known as SBFI for ‘Stony Brook FABP Inhibitors,’ show remarkable efficacy in rodent models, and we were working toward applying for first in human use.”
A compound capable of inhibiting FABPs has promising potential medical applications. “Blocking certain brain FABPs from functioning will reduce the rate of anandamide breakdown since they are no longer able to shuttle anandamide to its break-down enzymes inside the cell. More anandamide = more endocannabinoid signaling = less pain/inflammation. I think this has really exciting applications as a potential new drug that can reduce pain without having dangerous or addictive properties. This is especially important today in light of the opioid epidemic in our country.”
The tenor of the national conversation concerning the many applications of cannabis continues to move in a more positive direction, a trend Elmes believes is indicative of what the future will hold for the much-maligned plant. “Cannabis is becoming a less taboo topic every day, partly as a result of medical and recreational legalization in some states,” he said. Researchers like Elmes are beginning to cast some light into what he called the “dark ages” of our understanding of cannabis. “I don’t think I’m alone in speculating that the cannabis industry will continue to grow at an amazingly fast pace over the next decade. The 2018 Farm Bill for hemp was a good first step toward federal regulation of cannabis, but I think even more rapid expansion will take place once high-THC chemovars are permitted on the federal level.”
What about the shift from academia to the corporate world? “I have sort of been on both sides of the aisle,” Elmes said. “As a scientist for a cannabis corporation, I need to keep up with the academic research as well as the industry trends. There are hundreds of cannabis conferences targeted at everything from cannabinoid research to cannabis investments, and I’ve found that you encounter different people at these different events. I attend cannabis conferences designed for vendors and manufacturers as well as academic cannabis conferences, and the contrast is the subject focus between these groups: academics are interested in learning about how cannabinoids are actually working in our bodies, while industry is more interested in how to sell a product, more efficient manufacturing methods, and ultimately the bottom line. I personally try to bridge that gap as much as I can.”
Producing and Donating Hand Sanitizer
To say the COVID-19 pandemic has unsettled the worlds of countless people across the globe is an unfortunately unavoidable understatement. Faced with such a bewildering situation, and with CannaCraft dubbed an essential business during a time of widespread shutdowns, Elmes and his coworkers at CannaCraft decided to find a way to help out. Armed with a large stock of the ethanol that would under normal circumstances be used to extract cannabis oil, Elmes formulated a means of producing individual bottles of FDA-approved hand sanitizer for donation to nonprofits, customers, employees, and other essential businesses across California.
Learn more about these efforts here.
— Nicholas Raffel