In conversation with Dr. Parveen Bhatarah
By Dr. Parveen Bhatarah
Why I choose to specialise in the field of research and pharmaceuticals.
My family were all from a law background and I really wanted to do something different. I always loved maths, physics, botany, and zoology and my heritage in India inspired my passion for the natural world. The education system in India is a little different to the UK, in that your degree can be broader, so my degree was in Physics, Chemistry, Botany & Zoology. As first, I wanted to be a GP, to help others and develop new drugs, but unfortunately, I didn’t pass my medical entry exams (they’re much harder in India than in the UK) and I was really disheartened – but I wasn’t going to let that defeat me, so I decided that I would pursue Chemistry as my postgraduate course. I enjoyed it, and I was good at it.
I had to marry to continue my studies abroad.
I wanted to leave India and explore a new city and new opportunities and that was when I first experienced inequality – and strangely enough, it was from my own mother. She just wouldn’t allow it and said that I when I was married, I could do what I wanted. I was so frustrated – but luckily for me, my father was incredibly supportive, he was proud of me and wanted me to be happy. So, I said to my mother ‘Okay, well whoever you want me to get married to, fine, I’ll do it”. I did not care much about marriage. I just wanted to follow my passion. It was then that my father’s friend – a lawyer from India had moved to the UK and came to visit with us with his son. To cut a long story short… he became my husband. Marriage was always secondary for me – but I have to say, he is the kindest, most supportive man.
I experienced another setback.
We arrived in the UK, and I was all ready to start my post-graduate degree at Cambridge, then I received notification from the Indian government that they had revoked my scholarship as I was no longer an Indian citizen. I was devastated - honestly, it was the darkest day of my life. I called my mother, and needless to say we had a very heated conversation - I remember telling her she had ruined my life. My new husband was so kind, he offered to spend his modest savings to fund my studies, but to afford this I would have to transfer to university closer to our home. I was so grateful to be following my dream that I was willing to make that sacrifice. I applied to Imperial College, London, and having completed all my entry exams for a second time, I was delighted to be offered a place there. They couldn’t offer me a scholarship, but my professor encouraged me to apply for a special fund which meant more exams and so much hard work. I used to sit in the library from morning to night, but I really wanted this and was prepared to sacrifice any free time, and it paid off. I was so thrilled to get my scholarship eventually and still, to this day, I think it was the happiest day of my life.
Cultural differences and a lack of diversity.
It took me a while to settle in. I had arrived from a different country, and I had a different accent so it was a real culture shock for me. In my whole group, I was the only woman, and I was the only person to finish in 2.5 years (I was pregnant with my first son at the time), so I really wanted to get my Ph.D. finished so that I could enjoy motherhood. There were two other men who completed their PhD, but it took them 5 years – and the rest simply didn’t go the distance. For most of my life, I have been the only woman in the boardroom.
Giving back and Equality
I was so grateful for the opportunity university gave me, I had the chance to do some amazing research and to put my theoretical experience into practice, and I had the privilege to work with some of the best people in the world. I really wanted to give something back, so today, all these years later, I continue to have a close relationship with my family at Imperial College London, and I’ve worked as a mentor for their PhD students for many years. I like the term equality – especially when I reflect back on some of the inequality that I have experienced in my life and, while things are changing – for the better, it’s always been my belief that you have to earn your seat at the table. I think women bring a lot to business, and to society, but it’s not enough to just expect these things – it shouldn’t just be about gender but having the most capable people in the room. Gender should never be a barrier to equal opportunities, wherever you come from, for instance having to marry in order to study abroad and being the only female scientist in a boardroom of scientists. I hope the focus of encouraging more women into STEM will mean we reach a point where this isn’t even a discussion anymore. I really want to leave some sort of gift to encourage and explore more in the field of cannabinoids – and I think we can do this in several ways. Not least by creating amazing products that have scientific rationale behind them and that genuinely make a difference to your skin – and your mood, but also to give women the support and opportunities to get into this particular industry, and to thrive.
Balancing motherhood with a career
My mother had a mantra: “own your day” and it’s something that I’ve always lived by. I believe that if you start your day with some meditation and some time for quiet reflection, then God will give you the power to live your day. It’s something that I’ve carried with me throughout my life, and something that I’ve tried to inspire in my two sons. They take a little more encouragement, but we share the same ethic of rising early, working hard and above everything else, honesty. When I was studying, and throughout my career, the only other women around me were single and were career focused. I’ve often been told how brave I’ve been to forge a career as well as being a mother and a wife, but the reality is that I’ve been blessed. A friend of my husband told me when I was pregnant with our first child that she felt ‘a connection’ with my unborn child, and it was then that she pledged that she would always look after them. She stayed true to her word, and throughout their childhood, she was our in-house Nanny. I couldn’t have done it without her – and still, to this day the boys call her ‘Nanny’. Of course, my husband has also made many sacrifices to support me, and I thank God daily that I’ve been so lucky.
How I became involved in the CBD industry
My involvement in the world of cannabinoids happened by chance as I had spent most of my career working in pharmaceuticals, so use of cannabinoids in food was a new world for me. At the time CBD had been declared as a novel food – but there were no regulations. Products were just placed on the market – and there was no compliance in place, which were clearly needed to ensure appropriate standards. During my career, I had built good relationships with both the Home Office and the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority), so I decided to meet with them both. Neither of them were taking responsibility – the Home Office were saying that it was a non-controlled drug, and although they were aware of some issues around compliance, it wasn’t their responsibility, while the MHRA weren’t taking responsibility because it wasn’t a controlled drug and we went round in circles.
I was then approached by the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis (CMC) – they were impressed by my background, and they asked me for help… and that is where my journey started. We wrote to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in 2020, and as a result, they set a deadline for all commercially active CBD brands to submit novel food dossiers. This was genuinely a momentous moment in the history of CBD and the UK was leading the field. At this time, there wasn’t much going on in the rest of the EU, the USA were in a state of limbo, and Canada had set their own guidance and rules. The UK declared that CBD was to be considered a ‘novel food’ and that all companies had to go through a rigorous compliance process. This was a real turning point for the industry in the UK as we were finally turning a non-compliant industry onto a road towards compliance. I was responsible for bringing together over 6000 products in a complex application process – it was really hard work, but I had previous experience in working with medicinal cannabinoids and regulatory authorities, and I really felt that this was the right thing to do.
It was a short step then into the world of topicals.
The human body naturally produces endocannabinoids (ECS), which are responsible for the functioning of the central nervous system & homeostasis. CBD has the same profile, and preclinical evidence suggests that topical application of CBD may be efficacious for some skin disorders. CB1 receptors help to balance the central nervous system, while CB2 receptors are present on the periphery and they help address issues with the skin such as protecting the skin barrier and dealing with inflammation so, this implies that CBD could be really very useful for topical application too. Research indicates that CB1 & CB2 receptors are both found in cutaneous nerve fibres, dermal cells, melanocytes, sweat glands & hair follicles. While CBD does not bind to CB1 & 2 receptors it does interact indirectly with the receptors. Specifically, CBD activates TRPV1 receptors (vanilloid receptor 1), and this partnership creates a variety of positive effects within body . I’ve been working in this area of research for a number of years now, as well as developing drugs and patents, so my knowledge is already being leveraged by the MHRA, but when it comes to CBD, I learned a great deal from a project which I was leading some years ago, working with some really talented people and universities, and together, we developed the right genetics to create seeds that contained the specific cannabinoids I wanted, using an innovative methodology similar to Crispr gene editing technology. This meant we could specify the exact genetics we wanted to synthesise, and this was especially important as we needed to cultivate a plant that could be used for medicinal purposes, so batch to batch consistency was critical. It took a team of 20 analysts, 9 chemists and over 12 years, but we finally developed a finished capsule that was submitted to the FDA. Sadly, although it passed their inspections, we were unable to advance it due to DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) challenges to change from schedule 1 to schedule 2, so the project came to an end – but it was a fascinating process to develop a product from a plant to a finished capsule.
If I were Prime Minister
If I was Prime Minister for the day, I’d set about developing innovative regulations for the cannabis industry. I’ve worked as a consultant to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, and the one thing I have said time and time again is that the industry needs clarity. It needs to be treated differently, not under FSA or MHRA, because cannabinoids are different – they need their own regulations. I co-wrote two papers with Professor Trevor Jones on exactly that. How the UK can lead the way in regulations, and give clarity and assistance to the industry, enabling research and innovation in this area. If we get that right, then we’ll encourage investment in the industry, and research and development can really thrive. We submitted the report in February 2022, and only last month, the FDA came to the same conclusion. The UK government have had this advice for over a year – and they’re still waiting for their response.
Why Nature’s Journey
Coming from my background of pharmaceuticals, herbal and cannabinoids, and my heritage in ayurvedic medicine, I had high expectations, but from the very first time I met with the Nature’s Journey team, honestly, I fell in love. I felt such a close connection with their vision, with the products they were developing and the people behind the brand. I think one of the key advantages alongside other natural extracts is that CBD has receptor initiation properties, which not all plant derived ingredients have. This means that CBD has the opportunity to be truly active on the skin – from working on the cutaneous nerve fibres, to triggering dermal cells, sweat glands, and reducing inflammation. So, when you combine those properties with the other incredible ingredients we’re using, there’s so much potential. It’s still early days for clinical trials, but there are some really encouraging, really exciting opportunities ahead for sure.
I am not someone who has traditionally used many cosmetics – but I adore the Nurturing Day Cream, even when I’m travelling, it comes with me in my washbag. Never mind diamonds, I think this is a woman’s best friend! – and the whole family love the range, my son especially adores Sleep Easy Pillow Mist. I also love the philosophy of the brand – about creating products for the modern generation. A recent pre-clinical study on 5000 people, and their usage of CBD showed that 60% of users are doing so for help with anxiety, and by using it, they feel a sense of self-control. I think there is so much opportunity here – and if my son is anything to go by with his love for Sleep Easy Pillow Mist, there’s a real need for it.
Content published by Nature’s Journey CBD Wellness is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease. Always seek the advice of your GP or another qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise, or other health-related programme