The University of Padua (UNIPD) is one of the 5 oldest surviving universities in the world. It’s served as a hub for medical studies since 1250, and is home to one of Europe’s oldest anatomical theatres. Today, almost 800 years after opening its doors in 1222, UNIPD remains at the forefront of pioneering medical education, serving as the only European university offering cannabis courses to its undergraduate med students.
“It’s a long and winding road, but today marks the beginning of a new era” confesses Dr Viola Brugnatelli, a cellular neuroscientist and cannabis lecturer at the University of Padua.
Viola is celebrating arguably one of the biggest milestone’s of her career; 56 6th-year med students just enrolled in La Cannabis Medicinale 2020-2021, the first medical cannabis course within the University of Padua’s curriculum for undergrad medicine and surgery students.
“This is a huge achievement that hopefully will be followed by all other Italian academies. And I’m proud to be part of the cultural revolution.” Viola has been lecturing about cannabis at UNIPD since 2017, when the school started offering a 1-year postgraduate course on medicinal cannabis to MDs and other health professionals. This year, however, she won’t just be lecturing graduated professionals: for the first time, she’ll be introducing undergraduate students to the power of medicinal cannabis.
Teaching “the power of medicinal cannabis”
This new course is directed by Professor Gastone Zanette, Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology at UNPID’s Department of Neurosciences, who also teaches the course alongside Dr Viola Brugnatelli, Dr Stefano Bona, Dr Stefano Dall’Acqua, and Dr Ulderico Freo.
“It may seem like a small achievement,” explains Viola, “but it will have a huge impact on our healthcare in the medium to long term.”
La Cannabis Medicinale offers an in-depth look at medical cannabis and explores the historical use of the plant, its clinical application today, the biochemistry and pharmacology of cannabinoids, and the processes behind extracting and analysing medical cannabis and its compounds.
By introducing undergraduate medicine students to cannabis early on in their education, Gastone and Viola hope to address one of the main downfalls of Italy’s medical cannabis system, namely the difficulty for patients to find doctors and/or pharmacies capable of prescribing cannabis or incorporating it into their therapy.
“Cannabis is not a ready-to-use drug, meaning it is critical for MDs to understand different methods of administration and pharmacokinetics in order to prescribe the right product. For these and many other reasons, it is critical for health professionals to be trained in endocannabinology and cannabis botany, biochemistry and pharmacology.”
The Beginning Of A New Era
Professor Gastone Zanette headed the long and arduous process of launching UNIPDs cannabis courses almost 10 years ago.
Unfortunately, both the university and the necessary public authorities, such as the Italian Medical Association, were skeptical about Gastone’s initial proposals.
But he wasn’t so quick to give up.
“I started to attend important events on cannabinoids and medicine held by the International Cannabinoid Research Society (ICRS) and the International Association for Cannabinoids in Medicine (IACM) to gain expertise, information, and skills from the scholars in this area, such as Mark Ware, Ethan Russo, John M McPartland, and William A Devane,” explains Pr. Zanette
In 2016, Gastone finally succeeded at getting approval to direct a 1-year postgraduate course at the University of Padua, titled La cannabis medicinale: aspetti agro-produttivi, botanici, medici, legali e sociali (or Medicinal cannabis: agro-productive, botanical, medical, legal and social aspects).
“This course was born after a huge effort to overcome an antagonistic medical and healthcare environment characterized by bias and false belief. It was a big challenge. The real problem with medicinal cannabis is the paucity of scientific evidence supporting its use, which is a consequence of the legal difficulties restricting the ability to perform high-quality studies on it. It’s a vicious cycle” he continues.
Unfortunately, UNIPD was unable to offer its postgraduate degree during 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought with it a lack of enrollments and a sudden shift to online tuition models.
But even in the face of a global pandemic, Gastone and Viola weren’t willing to give up their efforts to continue training Italy’s medical professionals on how to use cannabis in their practice.
3 master degree, 6 courses
In order to be able to continue offering their post-graduate course, Viola called on her own private online academy, Cannabiscienza.
“To keep offering up our knowledge on cannabis during these challenging times, Cannabiscienza stepped in to recreate UNIPD’s entire post-graduate course and adapted it to the online tuition model. This halved the tuition costs for applicants and has allowed us to start offering the course again in October 2021” .
Viola founded Cannabiscienza in 2017 to help address the lack of formal cannabis education and training for Italy’s healthcare professionals.
Today, Cannabisscienza is sponsored by some of the most prestigious medical and scientific institutions in Italy as well as the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), an international leader in psychedelic research.
The academy currently offers 3 Masters degrees and 6 courses (all taught completely online) highly-targeted to veterinarians, MDs, pharmacists, chemists, pharmacologists, nurses, and more.
“When used consciously cannabis is an incredibly useful tool in the healthcare tool bag, However, due to its nature of containing a multitude of compounds, we need an updated understanding of its pharmacodynamics.” details Viola.
Through her work at the UNIPD and Cannabiscienza, Viola and her team-mates are helping construct this understanding and pass it on to Italy’s next generation of healthcare professionals.
“The University of Padua will be celebrating 1000 years in 2022. Since its early days, the university has played a leading role in the identification and treatment of diseases and ailments, confirming its role as a solid science-based hub dedicated to innovation, even in the face of stigma. Through launching this year’s undergraduate course, we hope to have set a positive model for academies worldwide. Ad maiora semper!”