A University of Arizona emeritus professor is bringing attention to medical marijuana research and teaching by hosting a free community symposium that will bring cannabis experts from all over the world to Tucson.
Organized by Raphael Gruener, the inaugural Interdisciplinary Cannabis Symposium will be the first of its kind in the state of Arizona. Speakers from the United States, Canada and Israel will present to students, faculty and community members about evidence-based research on cannabis. They will also discuss ways that cannabis can be incorporated into the learning environment by teaching students about the horticultural and medicinal aspects of the plant.
The symposium will be held on Wednesday, Sept. 25, in the DuVal Auditorium at Banner-University Medical Center. Registration for the event is required. (See box)
According to Gruener, there are many obstacles involved in conducting research and teaching about cannabis at a public university since it’s prohibited by the federal government. He hopes to see this change.
“The university is a place where students as well as interested community members need to have access to the latest evidence-based research in all areas,” he said. “I want to do everything I can to continue to nurture these kinds of activities.”
There are 14 research institutions in the U.S. that have a dedicated unit or center for the study of cannabis, included three in the University of California system. Gruener wants to see the UA become a significant partner in the teaching and research of medical marijuana.
“The idea is to develop relationships with people who are already in the field and in the future, when the government federal and statewide permits it, we will be able to start research on the horticulture and potentially medicinal value of cannabis,” he said. “I’m really hoping that our faculty here will become interested in pursuing that.”
The symposium will also bring professors, such as UC Davis’ Yu Fung Lin, to talk about establishing teaching courses on the physiology of cannabis.
“These are courses that would answer questions like how cannabinoids interact with us people, whether we take it medicinally or recreationally. Why do we get high? Why does it help pain? Why does it help with insomnia? Why does it help for arthritis? Why does it help against epilepsy? And so on,” Gruener said.
Cannabis Research at UA
Todd Vanderah, head of the UA’s Department of Pharmacology, has been conducting research on the chemical components of cannabis, called cannabinoids, for nearly a decade.
According to Vanderah, there are over 500 different chemical compounds in a single marijuana plant, but when most people think of cannabis, they think of THC, the chemical that causes people to get high.
“I look at any different type of what I call non-psychotropic cannabinoids,” he said. “I’m very interested in the compounds that may have medicinal use but don’t produce the euphoria or the psychotropic effects.”
Specifically, Vanderah has been looking at cannabinoids that inhibit pain and inflammation. He’s conducting a clinical trial for Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer patients to see if cannabinoids can help decrease a patient’s dependence on opiates and help to relieve pain.
“Most of those patients, if not all of them, will go on an opiate for their pain. As I was studying these different types of cannabinoids, we found that many of them will decrease pain and inflammation. They don’t have much of an effect on the brain, but they’ll work for these patients’ pain,” Vanderah said. “The other great interest is that is also slows down the bone loss. With cancer patients, of course, one of the problems is that they have a loss of bone and that’s where they start to have fractures and a lot of pain.”
With this clinical trial, Vanderah said his research team had to use a cannabinoid that does produce some psychotropic effects, due to the fact that there are very few cannabinoids that are approved by the FDA.
“My dream in the future is to use non-psychotropic cannabinoids,” he said. “I’m still waiting for a company to get FDA approval for one of these newer types of cannabinoids that can be used in patients.”
Cannabinoids and the human body
At the upcoming symposium, Vanderah will be the first speaker to address the community, focusing on the natural cannabis-like molecules that are produced by the human body, called endocannabinoids.
“One of the things that many people don’t know is that our bodies actually make cannabinoids,” he said. “Cannabinoids are something that has been feared by many people as a drug of abuse and a gateway to other drugs, but our bodies, in many of the cells throughout our body, will actually make their own cannabinoids.”
The human endocannabinoid system, discovered by scientists in the 1990s, works to regulate and maintain stability within the body despite external changes in the environmental. Cannabinoid receptors are located throughout the body in the brain, organs, connective tissue, glands and immune cells and play important roles in a variety of internal processes, including pain, memory, mood, appetite, stress, sleep, metabolism and immune function.
If a person is hurt, cannabinoids can be found in the injured area helping to repair damaged cells, working to reduce pain and calming nearby immune cells, essentially acting as a biological defense system. The endocannabinoid system is responsible for maintaining the body’s optimal function, even as things are changing externally.
According to Vanderah, when people consume cannabis medicinally or recreationally, it interacts with the endocannabinoid system to produce additional effects. The reason why cannabis can produce therapeutic effects or make someone high is because it mimics the function of endocannabinoids within the body.
During his presentation at the symposium, Vanderah said he hopes to show the community the value of cannabis research and help to facilitate more conversations about it within the UA and Tucson community.
“Most of the drugs that we find in the world come from a plant. Aspirin came from the bark of a tree. There are all kinds of chemicals in there and somehow, they found aspirin,” he said. “I think the important thing is to tell the students, the community, everybody that we don’t know a lot about cannabinoids. People need to know that cannabinoids are not just the marijuana that people are smoking to get high. There are many undiscovered chemicals that may be extremely useful.”
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