Facchini in his opium poppy greenhouse here at the university.
├ćndrew Rininsland/the Gauntlet

Researcher gets grant to study opium

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One of the two researchers in the world researching opium is here at the University of Calgary. Canada Research Chair in Plant Biotechnology and biological sciences professor Dr. Peter Facchini holds a license to cultivate 100 opium poppies on campus.

"For the last fifteen years, I have been working on understanding the biochemistry and molecular and cell biology of how opium poppy can make medicinal compounds such as morphine and codeine and related painkillers and analgesics," said Facchini.

Recently Facchini was given a $650,000 grant by Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada to research new ways opium poppies can be used for medicinal and industrial purposes.

Facchini explained he doesn't know exactly how much a domestic industry for poppies could be in Canada but said he's heard of everything from $100 million to $1.6 billion.

"Canadians are one of the largest--if not the largest--consumers of codeine in the world," said Facchini. "One of the reasons for that is that it's an over-the-counter medication. Only in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, in all other countries--for example, the United States--it's strictly a prescription medicine, so when you have an over-the-counter medication and when you have something that is useful to treat coughs and aches and pains and you live in a climate such as Canada, then it's not surprising that the value of the industry would be large."

Facchini's grant will be split between his own work with opium poppies and his co-collaborator Jon Page's research with cannabis.

"My involvement with [cannabis] is that a close collaborator of mine who is a co-principle investigator on this particular grant application has been studying cannabis and he will be responsible for all the cannabis work."

Facchini noted Page's research would happen at the National Research Council Plant Biotechnology Institute in Saskatoon. Facchini's research will be located in Flin Flon, Manitoba at the infamous coalmine, as well as continuing here at the university.

Until now, Page has been researching Hops--the plant that causes the bitterness in beer.

"Hops and cannabis are two groups within one plant family," said Facchini. "In fact, the bittering compounds that are found in hops are in some extent related to the psychoactive metabolites that are in cannabis.

"It's an example of the chemical wizardry of plants," continued Facchini. "They're able to twist and turn molecules into variations--some of which are psychoactive and some of which are just bitter and it doesn't really require all that much of a difference in chemical structure to a have a very profound effect on the so-called pharmacology, in other words the effect the compounds are going to have in us."

Afghanistan is the world's number one producer of opium poppy. However, all of the production is illicit, meaning 100 per cent of it goes to the production of heroin, explained Facchini.

"The extent of cultivation of opium poppy in Afghanistan is many times more than the entire licit production of opium poppy in all countries in the world that are allowed to do so," he said. "It is a problem. It has contributed to the instability in that country."

Facchini noted he had no solutions to the problem going on in Afghanastan, as it was beyond his jurisdiction as a scientist.

"I have my opinions about how things should be dealt with in a place like Afghanistan," said Facchini. "Certainly the best that I can is to continue to advance our understanding of the science of this plant and hopefully that knowledge will be useful in the development of technologies that could perhaps one day also be used to address issues in a place like Afghanistan."