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Sabrina Ramkellawan; Superhero of cannabis clinical research

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Sabrina Ramkellawan started her career as a Registered Nurse with a specialty in critical care and now has 20+ years of experience in conducting clinical trials to help bring drugs and devices to market. During the last 5 years, Sabrina has been tirelessly working in medical cannabis research, and has had the opportunity to work with several cannabis companies to help them conduct research.

In her current role as the VP of Clinical Affairs at TerrAscend, she is responsible for overseeing clinical trials to ensure it is aligned with the company’s R&D goals with respect to cannabinoid product development and strategic partnerships. She has been involved with several cannabis research studies including chronic pain, PTSD, pharmacokinetic studies, Sativex clinical trial, and a post-concussion study. More recently she has helped to build the first Cannabis Educator Program with Michener Institute of Education at UHN geared to educating healthcare providers with evidence based science and research.

AW: You have a fascinating professional journey that many women can take inspiration from. Tell us about your career, and what propelled you to move from critical care nursing to specializing in clinical research?

As a child I wanted to be a superhero and figured being in a career where I could help people was as close as I could get. I started my nursing career with a critical care specialty, working in the surgical intensive care unit and emergency departments, as well as other areas such as pediatrics (Sick Kids), mental health (CAMH), and outpatient care/community nursing as well.

I had the opportunity to participate in one of my first clinical trials working at Sick Kids. I fell in love with being part of the team bringing new drugs and treatments to patients especially in areas where there was limited or no treatment options available for certain conditions, such as for rare diseases. I loved research so much that I have been doing it now for 20 years.

AW: What caused you to make the move into the cannabis industry?

My start in the cannabis industry was much like my start in research: it was not planned and just fell into my lap. In 2015, I was approached to help set up and manage a medical cannabis clinic, and along with that, conduct cannabis research studies as well. However, I was very reluctant to initially work in the cannabis space because cannabis was not my area of expertise. But when another major contract fell through, I took the cannabis gig as the VP of Operations at Apollo Applied Research.

I have a nursing background but like most health care professionals, we are not taught about cannabis. So, I had to teach myself in order to educate patients and oversee a cannabis clinic. The two key reasons that I have continued working in this space are:

  1. Seeing firsthand how medical cannabis can impact a patient’s life; and
  2. The need for more research to support and evolve the science of cannabis and further to improve it as a medicine (through research and product development/innovation). I have had the privilege of educating thousands of patients, and interviewed many on the research study side, which allowed me to get even more information on the measurable benefits of the plant in chronic pain, PTSD, insomnia, and brain injury, to name a few therapeutic areas. One of the most impactful research studies I have ever conducted was interviewing veterans with PTSD, which included hearing about their trauma, and their experience with using cannabis.

I attribute much of my cannabis knowledge and education from patients themselves. This interaction has been the best way to learn through their experiences and their personal journey. Because of patients, I want to drive more research in this industry and contribute to it in a big way.

Sabrina speaking at the Brain Injury Canada Conference about Brain Injury and Medical Cannabis.

AW: Cannabis is still a largely stigmatized or even illegal plant in most countries, so jumping in early in the industry requires a lot of bravery.  What or who in your life contributed most to your ability to be brave?

My family, including my grandmother, came to this country from Guyana as immigrants in the early 1970s looking for a better life. My grandmother was an inspiration for me, she could not read or write but she worked hard, hustled every day and was determined in her goals of making a better life for herself and her family. I get that altruistic sense of purpose from her in everything that I do, both personally and professionally.

I don’t think I have ever been okay with just having a ‘normal day job’, so going down new paths and pursuing new untapped opportunities is something I have always done throughout my career. As a nurse and researcher, it’s always been an important issue for me that health care is available and accessible to everyone, especially those that need it the most. Early in my career, my nursing outreach focused on providing care for people living on the streets, and in mental health. For me, cannabis has many issues including making it accessible to all patients with medical needs who can benefit from it.

AW: Research tells us that women in the c-suite and on boards are underrepresented in the cannabis industry, and pretty much every other industry. Realistically, what do you think can we do to change this?

The cannabis industry is not alone in this as you say, I think all industries must look at their Boards and C-suite positions and ask of themselves “How do we do better at representation and represent more diverse voices”? Women, people of colour, members of the LGBTQ community must continue to push the industry against underrepresentation. For me it was important to work in an organization that has diverse representation at the leadership team level, which I have found working at TerrAscend, a licensed producer in Canada (subsidiary companies Solace Health and Solace Health Network).

Cannabis is already so stigmatized and has many wrongs we still need to make right; including the incarceration of many Canadians, especially impacting racialized communities.

Wouldn’t it be a great story if the cannabis industry could be one of the best in terms of diverse representation in C-suite positions and Boards? It would take many stakeholders in the industry to come together to make this happen. Many communicate this sentiment but are less willing to back it with action. That’s what we need.

Sabrina after her keynote speech at the Alpha Woman Medical Cannabis Summit. Pictured here with Leslie Andrachuk and Kristina Shea.

AW: Many in the industry are focused on Cannabis 2.0, but you’ve mentioned your anticipation for Cannabis 3.0. Can you tell us more?

I like to think of medical product innovation as “Cannabis 3.0” of the cannabis evolution. As an industry, it’s important for us to continue to research and develop products that focus on specific indications and gather data to support products that show therapeutic effects (efficacy) and safety. The goal of medical cannabis is to produce cannabinoid products that deliver the same and consistent cannabis effect every time so that patients can expect consistent outcomes.

Moving away from strain names that don’t necessarily even mean the same in terms of cannabinoid content and terpenes. Currently only about 6% of doctors are authorizing medical cannabis. If we had more research, data and information on medical cannabinoid products that provide consistent dosing and effects, we will likely see more healthcare professionals’ adoption to authorizing medical cannabis. There is so much more to learn about the plant and its medicinal properties and research can help tell her story.

My work as VP of Clinical Affairs at TerrAscend is focused on clinical research and development, to support innovation and research into the development of standardized dosing and delivery methods.

AW: What you do believe are the roadblocks to getting more MD’s prescribing cannabis?

I think that there must be a paradigm shift in how health care practitioners measure their care of patients. Much of our education is learning about pharmaceutical products as one size fits all and less on personalized medicine, less focus on preventative care and not being open to other more natural treatment modalities.

MD’s don’t authorize for several reasons; they are worried that they won’t be taken seriously by their peers if they demonstrate they are a “cannabis doctor”, they don’t have the knowledge of how to manage a patient with cannabis, and they feel that there is not enough research and data to support its use.

We also need more education at the college and university levels to not only physicians, but many other health care providers including pharmacists, nurses etc. I am currently teaching at Michener Institute of Education at UHN and really pleased to be helping to educate health care professionals including physicians on cannabis.

More research will also help health care providers to support the authorization of cannabis. I do think that once we have high quality and standardized dosing delivery backed by research, we will see more adoption of cannabis as medicine.

AW: What do you feel are the drawbacks and benefits with Big Pharma eventually investing in developing cannabinoid-based pharmaceuticals?

The benefits are that Big Pharma does have the know-how and infrastructure to develop formulations and devices; and the funding to conduct the research studies to support new cannabinoid medicinal products. The benefit of clinical trials is that if the product has a DIN, then it can be covered by insurance companies for patients.

The drawback of Big Pharma’s investment in cannabis is the potential to focus on creating synthetic pharmaceutical products as opposed to full spectrum plant products. I think that many patients will want to access plant-based products, especially with the synergistic effects of the whole plant.

AW: Has cannabis changed your life in any way and if so, how?

I don’t have a personal story of consuming cannabis and changing my life personally that way. Working in the cannabis industry has allowed me to meet incredible people and interacting with patients on a regular basis has been inspiring to me. I feel lucky to have the opportunity to work in this industry by bringing my expertise, and hope to help the industry even in a small way. I have been fortunate enough to have worked on numerous cannabis studies to date with LPs, and cannabis companies. In my current role as VP of Clinical Affairs at TerrAscend; I focus on conducting clinical research that supports TerrAscend’s research and development goals.

AW: What do you do to keep yourself mentally and physically fit?

I have a 13-year-old son that keeps me busy and helps me to embrace my inner child as well. I enjoy running and yoga to keep physically fit. Surrounding myself with people who inspire me and make me better myself, also helps me mentally. I run a non-profit called Clinical Research Association of Canada which allows me to support education and at times to raise funds to support research in Canada. Giving back to my research community is something that is worthwhile to me.

I am also writing a comic book which has been great to help me more on the creative writing side and has been super fun. Since I can’t be a superhero…I can write about one…. maybe one that gets her powers from a certain plant.

Follow Sabrina on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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Leslie Andrachuk

As a bilingual pioneer in global digital publishing and marketing, Leslie is happiest when creating new things and inspiring her teams. She is passionate about changing biases that hold women back from realizing their true power and is grateful that at this point in her career she has the skills to make real change.

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