Dr. Robert Laprairie, University of Saskatchewan
Can you describe your area of research and how it is helping address a health-related issue in Saskatchewan?
Research in our lab focuses on how G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs) work at the level of cell and whole animal effects. Approximately 1/3 of all Health Canada-approved drugs works by targeting a GPCR, making this class of receptor extremely important to health and drug development. Specifically, our lab is interested in three types of GPCR: orexin receptors, serotonin receptors, and cannabinoid receptors. Orexin receptors regulate our body’s appetite and sleep and drugs developed to target these receptors may be useful in many disorders where appetite and sleep are affected. Serotonin receptors help regulate our mood and attention; there is a growing need to understand how psychedelic substances that work through these receptors may be useful in treating depression and anxiety. Our largest projects focus on the cannabinoid receptors, which regulate mood, appetite, and pain perception, among other effects and are the receptors effected by the cannabis plant. Following Canada’s legalization of cannabis, there is an urgent need to understand the potential benefits and harms of cannabis that our lab hopes to address.
What are the most rewarding aspects of your work?
The most rewarding aspects of my work are (1) supporting new researchers and (2) discovering something new with those new researchers. I was extremely fortunate to have an excellent mentor during my grad school years that helped me to grow and succeed as a young scientist. Now I am fortunate enough to pay that forward and help those in our lab succeed too. I chose to study the orexin, cannabinoid, and serotonin receptors because relatively little is known about them and so much remains to be discovered. Each day new data come in we are learning something new and potentially important. That feeling is wonderful.
What is the most challenging aspect of your work?
The most challenging aspect of my work is ensuring that all trainees and their ongoing projects are given the attention and time needed to ensure they are successful. Unforeseen circumstances and technical issues can arise and trainees may require help. As a supervisor, it is my role to support and assist wherever and however possible. New discoveries mean that projects and opportunities are constantly growing, but this can make time and resource management increasingly difficult. In drug discovery and development, sometimes the toughest challenge is being able to say ‘no’ to new opportunities in order to remain focused on a given question.
How did you first become interested in this area of research? What inspires you to do the work that you do?
My mentor and supervisor during grad school first got me interested in cannabinoid receptor pharmacology. Initially, my project explored cannabinoid receptor gene expression during Huntington’s disease. However, the more I studied the cannabinoid receptors the more I came to understand how much remained unknown. The openness and novelty of this field led me to be more and more interested in the fundamental biology of the cannabinoid receptors and other GPCRs. I was privileged to have the support of my supervisor to explore this field beyond what her lab had traditionally focused on in the past. Now I am inspired by the possibilities of discovery available to us – we are able to study the activity of receptors from the level of atoms up to whole animals and share this information in order to advance this rapidly growing field of study. In turn, our findings have the potential to have a real-life impact as drugs that target these receptors are increasingly available to the public through cannabis and psychedelics.
Where is your research headed in the next five years?
Research in our lab is currently headed in two important directions: health and harms reduction. For health, our group are working to characterize new drugs targeting the serotonin and cannabinoid receptors that reduce anxiety and depression and pain, respectively. In the next five years, we hope to have identified lead compounds in animal studies for both serotonin and cannabinoids with minimal side effect profiles that may be tested in human clinical trials for the treatment of depression and pain. For harms reduction, we are currently investigating the effects of maternal cannabis exposure in rats on the developing brain in pregnancy and early life. These studies will provide valuable information on the potential risks of using cannabis during pregnancy. We hope to use these data to provide information to health care practitioners and the public and reduce potential health complications.
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