Exclusive Series: Lab at USC Leading Field of Marijuana Research

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WOLO) – As medical marijuana clears its first hurdles inside the State House, the debate over research into its effects on health has reignited.

It turns out, that one lab at the University of South Carolina has been leading the field for years. Dr. Prakash Nagarkatti, Vice President for Research at the University, led one of the first teams in the world to demonstrate that marijuana cannabinoids can kill cancer. Nagarkatti has worked in academia for 35 years, 17 of which have been focused on the study of cannabinoids.

“Marijuana has close to 400 different chemicals,” Nagarkatti said. “Out of that, about 60 of those chemicals are called a cannabinoids and out of those 60, only two have been well characterized- the THC, which is psychoactive, and the CBD which is non-psychoactive.”

Nagarkatti and his team used cannabinoids to treat mice with cancerous tumors.

“We found that not only the tumor regressed in all the mice, but also about 20 to 30 percent of the mice were cured of the cancer,” he said.

The work spurred further studies around the world. It also prompted another question: whether cannabinoids can suppress inflammation. The condition is considered to be an underlying cause of many autoimmune diseases. The National Institute of Health estimates more than 23.5 million Americans suffer from these diseases, ranging from celiac to psoriasis, and they’re incurable.

“So when we tested against a wide array of different types of autoimmune diseases,” he said, “we were able to show that cannabinoids can suppress inflammation and therefore, they can be used to treat all of these autoimmune diseases.”

Nagarkatti said prescription medicine used to treat these diseases can produce side effects, like increased susceptibility to infection or cancer. He says, that’s not the case with cannabinoids, which do no affect bone marrow stem cells.

The Food and Drug Administration has not approved any product containing or derived from botanical marijuana for any indication, but does approve the use of three medicines containing synthetic variations of THC. The South Carolina Medical Association does not support legislation for medical marijuana or CBD oil, which is already legal in our state, but it does support further research and clinical trials.

Dr. Nagarkatti says, the problem lies in the illicit nature of marijuana. His lab, like most, must use 99.9% pure THC, that comes from the National Institute of Drug Abuse. The same goes for CBD. Their subjects are experimental animals which limit, obviously, present limitations in how the drug is administered.

“There are not many studies using direct inhalation or ingestion of marijuana. And clearly we need to do more research to find out if smoking or ingestion of marijuana as a whole, like the plant as a whole, would be very effective in the treatment of these diseases.”

The doctor says it’s up to the feds, from the Drug Enforcement Association to FDA, to monitor growth of specific strains of plants with different THC And CBD levels, and then conduct clinical trials to determine longterm effects on your health.

Our series ends here, but revisit the other pieces with a family who would benefit from legal medical marijuana, our sit-down the chief of SLED, an ardent opponent to the proposed bill, and a breakdown of the bill, with lead sponsor Senator Tom Davis.

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