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Denver-based MedPharm Holdings, holder of Colorado’s first cannabis research license for clinical trials, is a leader in medical marijuana research by focusing on neuropharmacology and Alzheimer’s disease medical world.
MedPharm is currently awaiting a final ruling from the Drug Enforcement Administration for a license to grow federally approved cannabis for medical research. The company has been waiting for a DEA decision since 2016, but is optimistic that it will take place soon after the agency’s recommendations on follow-up applications earlier this year.
As the stigma surrounding cannabis subsides and authorities finally open the door to item 9, MedPharm could take a leading role in investigating the medicinal benefits of the plant if DEA approval comes with Dr. Tyrell Towle, Director of Extraction and Chemistry at MedPharm.
Westword: What type of research is MedPharm focusing on?
Dr. Tyrell Towle: We’re researching that [includes] in vitro – in test tubes – that would be the removal of certain brain cells and the induction of an oxidative state in them. It is a state of stress that cells can get into, which is what happens in the brain during Alzheimer’s disease. Then we can use cannabinoids to see how they save the cells from this condition and maybe even trigger an anti-inflammatory condition.
We just got a research grant from [Colorado State University-Pueblo] Institute of Cannabis Research to re-test products for effectiveness on pharmacy shelves in our Colorado laboratory. This gives the industry a testimony to how close the label statement actually is to the package contents. Then we also look for things like a capsule that has been on the shelf for eight months: How much has it broken down since it passed the tests? We can see these trends to see which products are more prone to degradation. We also have plans for clinical trials by giving people our formulas to show how they can help with Alzheimer’s disease, for example. We focus on neurodegenerative diseases and neuropharmacology, but Alzheimer’s is our main concern.
Dr. Tyrell Towle is the Director of Extraction and Chemistry at MedPharm.
Courtesy of MedPharm
What is the relationship between cannabis and Alzheimer’s disease?
There’s not much I can specifically share, but we do know that cannabinoids are anti-inflammatory and interact with cannabinoid receptors in the cells we are interested in.
What are some of the stigmas surrounding the medicinal benefits of cannabis?
There are many of them – but one is because THC in particular is psychoactive. People are really excited about CBD as it doesn’t trigger that euphoric high. However, CBD also interacts with completely different receptors than THC, so it is not an exact substitute for THC. I think the stigma is that “feeling high” is a problem, and I don’t think it’s a problem, especially when it is treating an illness. If you are feeling a little good as a side effect, that is much better than the side effects of many medications. There are also options for dosage, such as taking it before bed if you don’t want to experience psychoactivity. If something is therapeutic and useful, it’s okay if it has a little psychoactivity as a side effect.
How does the expansion of state-approved cannabis research legitimize the industry?
From the statement that there is no medical benefit; it cannot be researched without any basis in saying that other sources are grown and cannabis made available for research is a step towards realizing that [cannabis] available at the federal level is not what was available at the state level. What is at the state level has not caused any radical damage, because we would now know that. This opens up more opportunities for actual medical research. Only the University of Mississippi has been able to provide cannabis for federal research, and we all know that their cannabis is not the same type of cannabis you can get on the market in places like here, Washington or California.
Why is the University of Mississippi not a reliable source for cannabis supplies?
A couple of things: One of them is that whatever strains they have, they don’t get very high in THC. For example, the joints they call “high-THC joints” contain around 8 percent THC. If you go to a Colorado pharmacy and try to sell this, nobody will buy it. That would count as a low potency. Therefore, their highly effective options are very few compared to what is available in pharmacies. Another problem is that they only harvest every now and then. I think the last time I heard was that the last harvest was somewhere in 2014. So it just sits there, breaks down, gets microbial growth … it’s just nowhere near fresh.
From a scientific point of view, what do you think of regulating access to cannabis? What are the legislators’ misconceptions about the impact on youth?
In general, when you have a fully developed brain, it won’t cause permanent changes. But teenagers have a developing brain by the age of 24, and this can affect how the brain develops. There is a link between people who smoked weed at a young age and fewer neural connections to the prefrontal cortex. But that doesn’t make it bad; it doesn’t mean something is wrong. There is only one difference at this point.
The whole idea that concentration specifically does something harmful is completely wrong; it’s the dose that does some harm. As for kids accessing things, kids are going to get whatever the hell they want. I don’t think it will work to impose concentration restrictions and the like; I think this is detrimental because you say you can only have X concentration and then the question becomes: what are people going to use to offset the rest of the Y concentration that needs to be filled and what kind of can that have health effects? We have no idea and I think that’s a lot riskier. Maybe children won’t smoke in a concentrated manner, but they could smoke a bunch of other chemical junk.
What is the status of your DEA approval?
We are still not admitted. It’s been a long process and we’ve waited forever for it, but we hope to be approved very soon and we are very excited to announce it as soon as it happens.
What are future research plans for MedPharm?
We will definitely continue to focus on neuropharmacology. We have a patent for a brain formulation that we believe will not only relieve some of the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, but also slow its progression. This is the great future that we are working towards to ensure that older patients can use cannabinoids to treat their Alzheimer’s or dementia symptoms and maybe even slow their progression so they can have a higher quality of life for longer.
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Hilal is an alumni of the Metropolitan State University of Denver with a degree in political science. She has written for Denver Life Magazine and 303 Magazine and is currently the cannabis intern for Westword.