MEDICAL CANNABIS: An ANTG staff member at the facility. Photo: Gareth Gardner 300720GGA24

MEDICAL CANNABIS: An ANTG staff member at the facility. Photo: Gareth Gardner 300720GGA24

Inside Australia's growing medical cannabis industry

Medical cannabis Australia: A look inside Australian Natural Therapeutics Group medical cannabis farm near Armidale

Industry
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"It definitely is a profitable and fast-growing industry."

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You smell it before you see it.

At an undisclosed location near the NSW university town of Armidale, an ex-banker, an IT specialist and a former lettuce farmer pull on protective coveralls, masks, hairnets, gloves and plastic boot covers in a roughly four-square metre space before they head in to work.

A thick yellow line marks the clean space from the unhygienic in the pharmaceutical grade facility that hides hundreds of cannabis plants and seedlings from prying public eyes.

It's the future of agriculture, privately owned by the Australian Natural Therapeutics Group (ANTG), and it's the only Good Manufacturing Practice and Good Agricultural and Collection Practices for Medicinal Plants certified producer of Australian-made cannabis flower.

HARVEST: An ANTG staff member checks the medical cannabis plants. Photo: Gareth Gardner 300720GGA17

HARVEST: An ANTG staff member checks the medical cannabis plants. Photo: Gareth Gardner 300720GGA17

At the helm is chief executive Matt Cantelo; an entrepreneur who worked predominantly in travel management before he turned his ambition to medical cannabis in 2015.

"It definitely is a profitable and fast-growing industry," he said.

"This is only the tip of the iceberg, but it will take professionals to the next level - we don't want cowboys in this industry and we love that the barriers to get in are hard and the standards are high.

"Unfortunately it has been in prohibition for 90-odd years so we have to build a brand new industry and skill-sets on the journey with us."

Medical cannabis has flourished in countries like America and Germany, but here in Australia those cultivation skill sets still don't exist; so ANTG takes people from tomato farms, horticultural backgrounds, PhD students and even retirees.

Everyone who works at the farm seems to be there because they have a belief in the product and its healing properties.

NEW INDUSTRY: ANTG chief executive Matt Cantelo

NEW INDUSTRY: ANTG chief executive Matt Cantelo

It all starts in the engine room behind a thick steel door with the genetic stock; the mother plants.

Every single plant that's grown at ANTG is a clone of one of its mother strains, the first of which was Eve.

There are no male plants kept at the facility, but both high THC and high CBD strains are grown there.

THC is the chemical compound that creates the psychoactive effects, while CBD is the cannabinoid that doesn't create a "high" effect.

Music hums in the background as the 40-odd staff work, interrupted by air changes every three minutes.

For an incredibly hygienic office that looks like something from a sci-fi film under the glow of hydroponic lights, the vibe is surprisingly chilled.

A TIGHT SHIP: Australian Natural Therapeutics Group site manager Jim Cameron. Photo: Gareth Gardner 300720GGA28

A TIGHT SHIP: Australian Natural Therapeutics Group site manager Jim Cameron. Photo: Gareth Gardner 300720GGA28

The facility is run by site manager Jim Cameron, a former lettuce and herb farmer from the Armidale area.

The conditions are as close to pharmaceutical grade as an medical agricultural industry can get, cannabis is considered a Schedule 8 drug in line with heroin or cocaine.

Everything in the greenhouse is controlled, from the quality of the water to the light to the amount of carbon dioxide in the air.

There are stacks of plants in the facility, but Mr Cantelo is conscious he can only grow at the rate of demand.

When a doctor goes for a painkiller that's opiate-based, the patient needs to stop them and ask for an alternative if they would rather not go home with a strong narcotic that is addictive and has side effects. - ANTG chief executive Matt Cantelo

ANTG supplies medical cannabis to both Australia and Germany, but decades of stigma means local GP's have been reluctant to prescribe it.

"It's going to take time, we have to be patient with providing clinical data to doctors in Australia and we have a more conservative approach with GP's here than any other country," Mr Cantelo said.

"It's taking Australian doctors longer and I think they are fair in asking for the evidence.

"I think patients are now calling on their doctors to look into it further, it will take the patient to change the doctor's mind here.

"When a doctor goes for a painkiller that's opiate-based, the patient needs to stop them and ask for an alternative if they would rather not go home with a strong narcotic that is addictive and has side effects."

ANTG is not just in the market to sell medical cannabis, it also has research partnerships with the University of Newcastle and the Hunter Medical Research Institute.

The results of recent lab tests have surprised even biomedical scientist and cancer researcher Matt Dun.

Where cannabis is usually used as a relief medication in cancer patients for nausea or pain caused by chemotherapy, tests of ANTG's Eve strain have shown it can kill or inhibit cancer cells without impacting normal cells in the human body.

MEDICAL CANNABIS: All produce at the ANTG facility is regularly checked for purity and quality. Photo: Gareth Gardner 300720GGA07

MEDICAL CANNABIS: All produce at the ANTG facility is regularly checked for purity and quality. Photo: Gareth Gardner 300720GGA07

Eve is a high-CBD strain of cannabis and Dr Dun began by studying its impacts on leukaemia cells.

"We work on high-grade cancers with poor prognoses, like paediatric leukaemia with genetic characteristics that lead to treatment resistance or adult cancers with poor survival rates," he said.

The Eve plant has less than one per cent THC and kills cancer cells in an abundance that's physiologically relevant, Dr Dun said.

"It was something we could give a patient in a therapeutic dose, if we gave the same amount of THC in an illegal variety it would kill a patient," he said.

"We got a bit excited about that because I knew the CBD variety, which is what the Eve plant is full of, has limited to no real side effects.

"There are only positive benefits like reducing anxiety and anti-inflammatory properties which work nicely with cancer treatment given leukaemia and inflammation go hand-in-hand.

QUALITY ASSURED: The lab at the ANTG facility where quality and purity is checked. Photo: Gareth Gardner 300720GGA26

QUALITY ASSURED: The lab at the ANTG facility where quality and purity is checked. Photo: Gareth Gardner 300720GGA26

"We moved on to treating kids' brain cancer cells and CBD was fantastic at killing the brain cancer cells if not twice as effective as the THC variety of medical cannabis."

It's not yet ready to be used as an anti-cancer treatment, but the next phase of research will include investigation into what makes cancer cells sensitive to CBD or other cannabinoids and normal cells not.

The research team will also look into whether more types of cancer respond to CBD treatment in a way that's clinically relevant.

Mr Dun said if he can figure out exactly how medical cannabis targets cancer cells, resistant types of cancers could be easier to treat by using targeted therapies.

"We work on the worst cancers and to get on top of those you have to have a multi-model therapeutic strategy - you need to hit it in a number of sweet spots when it tries to evade the immune system," he said.

"CBD along won't resolve high-grade cancer, there's a lot of people out there on the CBD bandwagon.

"I'm not on the bandwagon, I think it's a useful tool to base treatment around so we can hit cancer with drugs we know work without causing too much toxicity."

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