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UM plant physiologist keeps cannabis project growing

By Erin Garrett and Katherine Stephens

University of Mississippi

When senior research scientist Suman Chandra first came to the University of Mississippi’s National Center for Natural Products Research in 2001, he had no idea that he would be involved in one of the most pivotal programs in the School of Pharmacy’s history.

Chandra, who has extensive training in medicinal plant physiology and biotechnology, carries out a variety of research activities dealing with cannabis as part of the Marijuana Project.

Funded by a competitive contract through the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the project is led by Mahmoud ElSohly, research professor in the Research Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences and professor of pharmaceutics. As part of the project, the NCNPR supplies high-quality marijuana and its constituents to the NIDA Drug Supply Program. The drug supply program then provides the marijuana to licensed researchers across the country.

“I’m very proud to work for the Marijuana Project,” Chandra said. “It is very well-known across the country, and I’m honored to work for Dr. ElSohly.”

A few of Chandra’s duties are indoor and outdoor cultivation of cannabis sativa that includes growing, harvesting and processing cannabis biomass under Good Agricultural Practices and Good Manufacturing Practices compliance, as well as maintaining production records, supervising and training personnel, and supervising overall field activities.

Growing the standardized cannabis for NIDA is a lengthy process, Chandra said.

“The first step in the process is to do a genetic screening to find out if the plant is male or female, if grown from seeds,” he said. “Cannabis produces a unique class of terpenophenolic compounds called cannabinoids, and females have higher cannabinoids as compared to the male plants. The second step is to keep only female plants and look for the elite clones based on their chemical profile for further propagation.”

In 2014, Chandra was heavily involved in growing marijuana outdoors. He moved his office outside to keep perfect records, paperwork and inventory of the cannabis while bearing the Mississippi heat.

“It is extremely important that we keep good security and up-to-date inventory when we are growing,” he said. “We document everything we do and make sure that all the Drug Enforcement Administration and Food and Drug Administration requirements are met.”

The Marijuana Project is funded under award number HHSN271201500023C.

Originally from India, Chandra has a unique background. He received his basic education in the northern region of the Himalayas and went on to Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University, where he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees, a Master of Philosophy and a doctorate in plant physiology.

While studying for his Ph.D., Chandra worked at the High Altitude Plant Physiology Research Center and G.B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development.

Not only is Chandra dedicated to his work at Ole Miss, but also he is dedicated to his family. His wife, Hemant Lata, is also a senior research scientist at NCNPR. They have a daughter, Riddhi, who is 6, and a son, Rishi, 9.

“They definitely keep me busy,” Chandra said. “We love hiking outside, and I enjoy spending as much time as possible with them.”