In Australia, the study of cannabis for medical purposes is relatively young. In fact, a recent study on children with cancer receiving palliative care and the ways medicinal cannabis can play a role in alleviating their suffering, done by the University of Technology in Queensland, became the first time such an investigation took place in Australia involving medicinal cannabis.
Currently, there is scant scientific evidence available around the effects of medicinal cannabis dosing in cancer patients.
Dr Meghan Thomas decided to join the medicinal cannabis industry a few years ago after seeing countless patients and prescribers desperate for new medical solutions. Other treatment options were failing to work for them.
“It’s this unmet medical need which I believe we can address through research,” she tells me.
Thomas was recently appointed Vice President of Clinical Development and Operations at Zelira Therapeutics — a job she says “where people have genuinely wanted to know more about the research I was undertaking.”
“Usually when you start talking about obscure molecules people’s eyes glaze over and they look for an exit,” she says. “But everyone has a story of how medicinal cannabis has helped someone they know.”
As one of the few women working in medicinal cannabis in Australia, Dr Thomas believes that having more women in STEM fields is vital and encourages those contemplating a career in this space to recognise the rewards that come with it.
“STEM can give you opportunities to earn an excellent salary whilst making a difference, travel the world, working with people who are passionate and committed to a rational approach to problem solving,” she says.
Thomas is currently conducting clinical trials, which are presenting unique challenges. She insists however that we have an exciting opportunity in Australia.
“We are unique in the world with our ability to conduct world-class trials in Australia and a credible and meaningful footprint in the world’s biggest cannabis market,” she explains. “Our regulatory environment allows us to generate the clinical data that is lacking from medicinal cannabis and that will empower our patients and prescribers to know more about products, when to use them, how much to use and for what specific conditions.”
“I absolutely love that my role at Zelira allows me to help patients who have exhausted other treatment options by contributing important research and data that will provide them, and their treating doctors, with much-needed evidence to show medicinal cannabis can be an effective solution.”
Dr Thomas believes that the largest problem in medicinal cannabis in Western countries with similar regulatory frameworks as Australia is providing clinical evidence that supports doctors in deciding to prescribe a patient a medicinal cannabis product.
“They need research so that they know what product to prescribe and what dose is required to help which patients,” she explains. “Having people with the STEM training and a passion for making a difference is the only way to achieve this.”
The young scientist was one of three children, growing up in Perth to parents who worked in finance and IT. She went to a Montessori primary school and spent a lot of time doing science and maths schoolwork —which is where her love for science began, she says.
In 2005, she undertook one year of her PhD at the Cambridge Centre for Brain Repair with Prof Roger Barker who saw Parkinson’s patients in the clinics and undertook laboratory research in the labs.
“I found it inspirational working in a multidisciplinary team with a clear connection between laboratory research and improving patient outcomes,” Dr Thomas says. “Upon returning to Perth, a very close family friend was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s and I remember thinking that I could do things a bit differently to really help make a difference.”
Thomas joined Zelira two years ago with more than 20 years’ of experience across academia, research governance and government health policy work.
Her academic achievements range from being one of only two neuroscience Australian Research Council Discovery grants in 2005 to conduct Parkinson’s research, founding Edith Cowan Uni’s Parkinson’s Centre (ParkC), twice receiving a Vice Chancellors Award for Excellence at ECU and conducting research at Cambridge University.
Zelira’s Perth-based Vice Chairman Harry Karelis believes women like Dr Thomas will ensure a better future for those requiring alternative health solutions.
“I challenge you to find someone like Meghan working in the medicinal cannabis sector in Australia,” he said. “There would not be too many medicinal cannabis companies in Australia who employ someone with a PhD or with the level of scientific experience that Meghan has. She gets the job done and she’s smart.”