Legal highs furore hampers legitimate medical research

  1. Terrapinzflyer
    The Kronic backlash is affecting scientists trying to cure cancer, writes Adam Dudding.

    KIWI SCIENTISTS hoping to use cannabinoids to treat cancer, strokes, asthma and brain disorders say publicity around Kronic is tarnishing their work and could even jeopardise their funding.

    University of Otago lecturer Dr John Ashton said New Zealanders were at the forefront of international research into the medical applications of cannabinoids, which could eventually include tools to tackle stroke, cancer, asthma and neurodegenerative diseases.

    He said the trade in "legal highs", and the negative media attention that went with it, was tarnishing the reputation of legitimate research, and could even endanger funding.

    "To get research money from often conservative research funding bodies is never easy, but it isn't made any easier when cannabinoids become associated with these kinds of issues."

    The growing international notoriety of legal highs has had another downside, Ashton said. A few years ago, he ordered a synthetic cannabinoid from a biochemical supplier in the US, and had it delivered directly to a collaborator there, and it went "without a hitch".

    When he tried to do the same recently, products such as "Dream" and "Spice" have become widely known in the US and there are now new bureaucratic hoops to jump through. The collaborator is still waiting for the chemicals to arrive.

    "I guess it had to happen," Ashton said. The same rules apply to other drugs of potential abuse, so "maybe we've been lucky that these drugs have flown below the radar of recreational use for so long".

    Ashton said cannabinoid researchers have been forced to distance themselves from pro-cannabis activists who use the medical potential of cannabinoids as an argument for decriminalisation of the Class C drug.

    For example when Ashton published research tentatively suggesting a connection between stroke recovery and the brain's natural cannabinoid system, members of an online cannabis discussion group posted comments along the lines of "hey guys, cannabis cures stroke!", which isn't what the research said at all.

    Research into cannabinoids began in the 1970s, when THC, the most potent active ingredient of the cannabis plant, was first isolated.

    In the 1980s, scientists identified the places in the brain affected by THC, and called them "cannabinoid receptors". Remarkably, it turns out those receptors are vital to numerous day-to-day brain functions, including memory formation, movement and appetite regulation (which is why cannabis smokers experience forgetfulness and hallucinations, sleepiness, hunger, and relief from pain and nausea, by inhaling THC).

    Chemists can now synthesise THC and numerous other "synthetic cannabinoids" – chemicals that interact with the cannabinoid receptors. But research by big drug firms such as Pfizer to find cannabinoid-based painkillers foundered in the 1980s, after it proved difficult to separate the useful effects (the painkiller) from the debilitating ones (getting stoned).

    Unsurprisingly, the very properties that made those chemicals poor medicines made them attractive to recreational drug users, and in the past six months there has been a rising tide of concern, and media attention, about the health risks of "legal highs" containing synthetic cannabinoids, and the fact that teenagers have been buying them from dairies.

    Dr Robin Olds, chief executive of the Health Research Council (HRC), which disburses around $80m of government money a year, said the council can only fund a fraction of the grants applied for, and doesn't take into account whether the area of research is controversial or not.

    "We're not influenced by the politics of things; we make decisions based on the quality and benefit to New Zealand, not public popularity."

    If cannabinoids have such potential, why doesn't Ashton ally himself with the pro-cannabis activists who believe anyone seeking relief from pain, tremors or nausea should be allowed to smoke a joint?

    Ashton refuses to take a side on the decriminalisation debate, but said there were serious flaws in that argument.

    For instance, even though cannabinoids may eventually yield a stroke treatment, "you don't want to be smoking cannabis when having a stroke. Cannabinoids give you a racing heart and push up blood pressure. If you're having a stroke, that could kill you".

    There are currently three cannabinoid medicines on the world market. Sativex is a cannabis extract used by multiple sclerosis sufferers, and Nabilone and Dronabinol are synthetic cannabinoids used to fight nausea among other things.

    But for Ashton and the other researchers, there is still a world of possible therapies to be discovered – but they're not going to be found at your local dairy.


    A few of the leading lights in NZ cannabinoid research Michelle Glass, Auckland University. World leader in mapping out the cannabinoid receptors in the human brain. Research includes role of cannabinoid receptors in Huntington's disease. Scott Graham, Auckland University. How immune cells respond to cannabinoids (with possible implications for stroke therapies). John Miller, Victoria University. How cannabinoids and opioids affect memory processes. John Ashton, Otago University. Potential of cannabinoids for treating chronic pain. Paul Smith, Otago University. Role of cannabinoids in sensory and memory processes.

    July 10, 2011

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