Seeing is Believing: ICRS

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Greetings readers, we’ve just returned from the 2015 International Cannabinoid Research Society (ICRS) conference. ICRS describes itself as “a non-political, non-religious organization dedicated to scientific research in all fields of the cannabinoids, ranging from biochemical, chemical, and physiological studies of the endogenous cannabinoid system to studies of the abuse potential of recreational Cannabis.” Many one-off or repeating conferences regarding cannabis and cannabinoid science have been held since the 70’s, after Raphael Mechoulam’s structural identification and synthesis of THC. However, ICRS represents one of the first and longest-running to focus on research stemming from Mechoulam’s later discovery of the endocannabinoid system, the system of receptors, enzymes, and neuromodulatory lipids that plays a role in a host of physiological and neurological activities.

After attending almost every talk, we have a fresh stockpile of new information to report to you, straight from the frontlines of research. We will begin to unfold this information in the next few articles, but some of the most exciting new pieces involve new types of cannabinoid receptors and ways that cannabinoids can signal biological changes without receptors at all. Other new innovations in the field were highlighted by a terrific closing speech by Mechoulam, who spoke of endocannabinoid signaling that might occur through sources as unexpected as bacterial films, as well as the need for more testing to determine the actual harm cannabis might have on children.

One perhaps unavoidable theme of the conference was the harmony and clash between research focusing on phytocannabinoids and synthetic cannabinoids. Although both are non-native to the human body, phytocannabinoids are produced by plants, whereas synthetic cannabinoids are produced artificially in labs.

The case for studying synthetic cannabinoids is easy to understand; synthetic cannabinoids are easy to store, easy to measure, and best of all, researchers can study one effect at a time. Contrast this to testing cannabis, where the ratio of chemicals can change from flower to flower, and where one observed effect might have been caused by either one or all of the chemicals present in the study. For researchers focused on understanding the biological mechanisms of the human body or the inner-workings of the endocannabinoid system, testing one chemical at a time in consistent quantities makes sense from all angles. In line with this, almost all of the studies focusing on receptors or signaling pathways used synthetic cannabinoids. The knowledge these studies yield will help define a new generation of medicines. As we will cover in some of the upcoming articles, endocannabinoid enzyme inhibitors could allow naturally produced cannabinoids to stay where they are longer, rather than flooding the brain with non-native cannabinoids all over. This approach could eventually prove to be safer or more effective than cannabis in a variety of conditions or could allow us to trim off un-wanted side-effects of cannabis use.

However, there is a difference between research to understand the endocannabinoid system and research to help human patients. Obviously, patients with immediate pain are not concerned with medicines that haven’t been developed yet. Patients need experiments that test known, available medicines for particular diseases or illness. As of now, popular synthetic cannabinoids like THC and CBD are available to most medical cannabis patients. However, few patients choose synthetic cannabinoids; most opt for cannabis itself. Before the last ten years of research, a case could be made that this had to do with learned behavior, ritual of smoking, or appreciation of flavor, etc. However, numerous studies are now illustrating what Mechoulam referred to as the “entourage effect”, which is that multiple cannabinoids given together may be more effective than just THC or CBD for most conditions that the endocannabinoid system can be therapeutic in. Cannabis remains the cheapest, most energy efficient way of producing over 80 cannabinoids at once and can be engineered to produce particular ratios, as well. To focus on synthetic approaches to treating conditions at this point in time would be to re-invent a crude version of a wheel that nature has already perfected organically. To that end, ICRS offered quite a few studies focused on treating patients with cannabis.

However, obtaining permission for cannabis studies remains difficult in the U.S. and in many other countries. A good number of the cannabis studies were actually funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). Ironically, most of these studies were about the treatment of various illnesses with cannabis or cannabinoids. In a backwards way, therefore, NIDA has become one of the primary supporters of the cannabinoid research movement. Unfortunately, there were no studies that went beyond high-THC cannabis and high-CBD cannabis. There were no studies, for instance, that compared popular strains or phenotypes of cannabis for treating individuals with particular illnesses. This is because to receive permission from the FDA for that type of study would be almost impossible. Patients are effectively left hung out to dry for actual recommendations of cannabis strains.

Fortunately, as research between phytocannabinoids and synthetic cannabinoids continues, the gap between the two will continue to close, with both contributing to the advancement of the other as they always have. At the award ceremony, where researchers were awarded for particularly innovative papers, one researcher thanked another in his award speech for, as he put it, “making the discovery that gave me something to study for the last 30 years.” At that moment, it occurred to me just what a communal effort cannabis science has been. From the researchers themselves, to well-known cannabis news organizations like Project CBD, to actual dispensaries focused on sharing research information like Cornerstone, we are all working together to improve the lives of patients suffering conditions that may be improved via manipulation of the endocannabinoid system. We look forward to continuing to serve our role by bringing you the most up-to-date information about your medicines.