While the endlessly looping debates over marijuana legalization rage on, researchers on the medical campus have been investigating medicinal marijuana alternatives by way of naturally occurring chemicals that the substance mimics in the brain.
Aron Lichtman, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology and former president of the International Cannabinoid Research Society, described this area of study as the endogenous cannabinoid system. The focus of this research is to learn how these chemicals are made and broken down in the body. He said the researchers’ goal is to harness them to see what can be done to increase levels and try to get the therapeutic effects without some of the other problems such as abuse and dependence.
VCU has been researching cannabis since as early as the 1970s, said Lichtman, who has worked at VCU for 25 years.
“A number of groups discovered there were specific receptors in the brain that the active ingredient in marijuana, THC, would activate,” Lichtman said. “We began to appreciate that there’s a whole naturally occurring marijuana system that our bodies have that’s quite separate from the plant.”
Lichtman said researchers at MCV are considered preclinical because they do not work with patients but instead use cells, cell culture and laboratory animals. He said it can take up to $1 billion to develop a drug.
While he said research is greatly funded through the National Institutes of Health, Lichtman said the lab does plan on applying for more grants in the future.
“If we get enough evidence to suggest it is a good drug, or the target we’re looking at there’s some hope for treating human conditions then a lot more work has to be done to prove that the drugs are safe,” Lichtman said. “So it takes kind of a leap of faith from industries to go after these types of new drugs,”
In comparison to morphine or heroin, Lichtman said marijuana will not stop an individual’s breathing or induce respiratory depression if too much is used. He said the chemicals in the brain that THC mimics are present in areas that do not affect breathing or heart rate. On occasion Lichtman said a small percentage of people may experience psychotic or paranoid reactions and have to be hospitalized.
With animals such as mice, Lichtman said researchers are able to study the effects of THC on the brain in relation to pain and memory. He said when the animals are subjected to different types of pain models, they show reduction of pain and when they expose them to thought provoking situations, they show less anxiety.
The results of these experiments have prompted some companies to attempt to develop medications that will work the same way for human beings to treat pain, inflammation and anxiety disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder.
Lichtman said that THC is approved by the FDA in an orally-ingested capsule to treat nausea and vomiting as a result of chemotherapy treatments, and to stimulate appetite in AIDS patients. The THC dose of these capsules is between 5 and 90 milligrams.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not regulate canabis, even in the 23 states where some form of the drug is legal.
The FDA’s website states two drugs have been approved for therapeutic uses. The drug Marinol is described as containing synthetic THC, while the drug Cesamet includes nabilone, an ingredient similar to THC.
“The FDA is aware that marijuana or marijuana-derived products are being used for a number of medical conditions including, for example, AIDS, epilepsy, neuropathic pain, treatment of spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis, and cancer and chemotherapy-induced nausea,” stated the FDA.
Lichtman’s research on MCV extends to undergraduate and graduate student involvement as well.
What began as a volunteer opportunity within the lab turned into a job as a lab specialist for senior biology major Mohammed Mustafa.
He said that with persistence and a lot of emails, Mustafa found out about the lab and was able to begin working with the team after originally gaining interest in Lichtman’s work from one of his essays.
“I’ve always been interested in the endocannabinoid system ever since doing a project for cell biology,” Mustafa said. “Once I did that I realized that it was a lot that was unknown about it and was kind of like a brand new frontier of pharmacology that’s just emerging.”