The Entourage Effect

Forward-Thinking Alumna Makes the Case for Cannabinoids and Collaboration

By Becky Jensen (B.A., ’93)

It started as a normal, sunny day on the ski slopes for Leslie Buttorff (’79) and her family. As a Colorado native, she didn’t think twice about riding the chairlift with her 78-year-old mother, an avid skier herself. But as they got off the lift, a child slid across their skis and the women fell like dominoes. Buttorff’s mother broke her pelvis in several places, leading to a long recovery and desperate search for pain relief. Her mother tried steroids and over-the-counter products. She tried opioids and medical marijuana, but didn’t like the risk of addiction and the feeling of being high.

Panacea Life Sciences CEO and Colorado State University Alumnus Leslie Buttorff, poses at Panacea’s facility in Golden, Colo., January 17, 2020.

At the time of the accident, Buttorff had already started to invest in the newly legal marijuana industry. As CEO of Quintel Management Consulting, she was beta testing her ERPCannabis software – an enterprise resource planning tool for marijuana companies that were struggling to run back-office operations and track seed-to-sale transactions.

“I knew nothing about marijuana,” she says. “I just figured these companies would need ERP systems, and I would learn about the cannabis industry along the way.” As Buttorff’s industry knowledge grew, she sharpened her focus on hemp and cannabidiol, or CBD. Unlike THC in marijuana, Buttorff learned that the CBD compound extracted from hemp is nonpsychoactive, and the potential for CBD’s therapeutic applications was staggering. In addition to effective pain management, clinical trials showed CBD’s promise to reduce anxiety, improve sleep, reduce inflammation, prevent seizures, control appetite, slow dementia, and treat cancer. Hemp and CBD were now legal at the federal level, consumer demand was growing exponentially, and the U.S. CBD market was on pace to become a $24 billion industry by 2025. Buttorff decided to make a bigger investment in the CBD arena.

In 2017, she founded and became the CEO of Panacea Life Sciences, a company named for the Greek goddess of remedies and healing. Panacea was more than just a business venture to Buttorff; it was something she could do to help her mother, and others like her mom, live pain-free. Buttorff hired biochemist, pharmacologist, and industry veteran James Baumgartner, Ph.D. Baumgartner not only formulated the company’s first CBD product, “He drove the first dose over to my mom,” Buttorff says. The THC-free “undrug,” as Buttorff calls CBD, relieved her mother’s chronic pain without fear of addiction and without dulling her mind. Today, at age 82, Buttorff’s mother takes Zumba classes and still works for Quintel. “I can lead a normal life again,” she says, thanks to CBD.

“Panacea’s mission is to help people and pets feel better each day by delivering the highest-quality CBD products on the market,” Buttorff says. Located in the former mining town of Golden near Denver, Panacea’s 51,000-square-foot lab is a leader in this modern-day gold rush. Unlike most other CBD companies, the scientists at Panacea do everything from farming to product fulfillment to ensure strict quality control. Beyond the walls of Panacea, the CBD industry often feels like the Wild West to Buttorff, in need of standardized analysis practices, consistent labeling, and quality assurance measures to best serve the consumer. The industry would also benefit from more research into cannabinoids, a class of compounds found in the cannabis plant that includes CBD.

Over the years, Buttorff had maintained strong ties with Colorado State University. She endowed a full-ride statistics scholarship in 2012, received the College of Natural Sciences Distinguished Alumna award in 2014, and would periodically meet with three leaders from the College of Natural Sciences: Jan Nerger, dean of the college; Melissa Reynolds, professor of chemistry and associate dean for research; and Simone Clasen, associate vice president of philanthropic operations. The four women in STEM had mutual respect for one another and enjoyed meeting for lunch to bounce ideas around.

“Leslie was dismayed at the lack of solid research in the cannabis arena and CBD in particular,” Nerger remembers from one lunch meeting in particular. By the time the meal was over, the group had brainstormed a solution. “We came up with the idea of creating an analytical chemistry lab with state-of-the-art instrumentation to research cannabinoids,” Nerger says. The lab would both refine research best practices for industry and further investigate the wellness attributes of cannabinoids for consumers.

Buttorff loved the idea and made a $1.5 million gift to establish a cannabinoid research center on the CSU campus. Located in the Chemistry Building, the lab opened this spring.

A wide variety of colleges have expressed interest in cross-disciplinary research at the new facility. “CSU offers expertise in the complete cannabinoid value chain from seed to sale, including botany, chemistry, biology, psychology, agricultural sciences, statistics, business, veterinary research, and more,” Buttorff says.

Nerger also anticipates research collaborations with CSU Pueblo, which plans to offer a new cannabis-science degree program this fall. “I really see all of this as synergistic,” Nerger says. “We’re building on the strengths of each other.”

The new research center will allow faculty and students to investigate untapped cannabinoid potential, such as “the entourage effect” – the theory that while a single cannabinoid produces a unique benefit, certain cannabinoids in combination work better together for an even greater effect.

“This research is absolutely exciting,” says Reynolds, who will serve as director of the new lab. “Cannabinoids have already proven effective in a number of clinical applications, and there are more than 100 other compounds that have been identified in hemp that could have an impact in other areas. Honestly, the possibilities are limitless. We are incredibly grateful to Leslie for this gift.”

The new cannabinoid research center will foster collaboration between industry and academia, and across multiple CSU colleges and campuses. By working together, CSU and Panacea are poised to create their own entourage effect, with the promise of unlocking new scientific discoveries for the greater good.