Scientists in Canberra will develop a new treatment for skin cancer using medicinal-grade cannabis, with clinical trials to begin in the ACT next year.
The University of Canberra has signed a million-dollar deal with Cann Pharmaceutical Australia to develop a new treatment for the 50,000 Australians living with melanoma.
The two-year research project, led by molecular and cellular biologist Professor Sudha Rao, will examine how cannabis can be used in combination with radiation and other therapies to treat cancer.
Cann Pharmaceutical Australia's managing director Andrew McCrea said the first results of the clinical trials could be known as soon as next year.
"This research and clinical trial is designed to be fast tracked. We could get first results from this within nine months," Mr McRea said.
An estimated 13,000 Australians will be diagnosed with melanoma in 2016 and the disease is predicted to kill almost 1800 people Australia and New Zealand this year alone.
The medicinal cannabis that will be used in both the laboratory and clinical trials in the ACT is a specialist strain grown in Israel.
More than 2500 people per month are already treated with Cann Pharmaceutical's medicinal grade cannabis for conditions including epilepsy, Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis.
The global producer sought to work with the University of Canberra and Professor Rao because of her innovative research in the field.
Professor Rao and her team were first to identify the role played by a certain enzyme in the spread of cancer stem cells and are researching whether "switching off" cancer stem cells can stop the cancer recurring.
The hope is to create a treatment that will "assist and boost the immune system" to complement traditional chemotherapy not just for melanoma sufferers but other cancer patients too, Mr McRea said.
"We understand it is the first time in the world these cannabinoids will be used with standard treatment therapies to treat melanoma," Mr McRea said.
"Because Professor Rao, her laboratory and the strains of cannabinoids from Israel are so advanced, by putting them together hopefully we're going to be able to make a real difference in Australians with melanoma."
Acting Vice-Chancellor Professor Frances Shannon said Professor Raos' groundbreaking cancer research could a play a role in the University of Canberra's emerging health precinct.
"The key thing is to link the research with the treatment. In this health precinct here at the university, we hope to link the researchers really close to where treatment is happening so that you get that interaction and therefore you get better outcomes," Professor Shannon said.
ACT Greens MLA Shane Rattenbury said the research may not just be a breakthrough in cancer treatment but also in the legality of medicinal cannabis in Australia.
"This research here will reinforce that this plant in various ways can make really significant impact for people, particularly where pharmaceutical medicines can't play a role," Mr Rattenbury said.
He said he was "very keen" for the ACT to "keep moving forward" and to make cannabis available for people for medical applications.
"People are crying out to be able to use it for a range of medical conditions and we shouldn't be in a situation where people who want to access it for medical purposes are potentially operating illegally," Mr Rattenbury said.
"It's an untenable situation and we should take that stress away from people who are often in very difficult circumstances."