The Salk Institute for Biological Studies may have made a major breakthrough in the battle against Alzheimer’s Disease last year. Lab tests at the La Jolla-based nonprofit research organization showed that a new drug candidate reduced the proteins that accumulate in brain cells that eventually form amyloid beta plaques, the main brain toxin in Alzheimer’s.
Yet what the studies also showed is that the pathways for this process were shared by THC, the main psychoactive compound in marijuana. When the researchers exposed the damaged brain cells to a compound that mimicked THC, it not only reduced the harmful proteins as well as the original drug, it also reduced the associated inflammation response, a major marker for the disease.
The brain cells were virtually good as new.
“It was an accident,” said David Schubert, a 51-year Salk professor and senior author of the study. “We didn’t set out to study marijuana. We were trying to study how the drugs that we have work. But we discovered that THC is something that has the potential to be effective for Alzheimer’s.”
Alzheimer’s is an incurable brain disease that robs 700,000 Americans of their lives every year, but not before first robbing most of them of their memories and personalities. Marijuana’s possible role as an Alzheimer’s cure may render the standard impersonation of a user — someone who forgets things — cruelly ironic.
But marijuana research is shamefully underfunded because the drug’s classification as Schedule 1 (a narcotic with no possible medical use) places it squarely out of reach of most academic laboratories.
“We’ve known about cannabinoids for 40 years or more and there’s a lot known about the receptors and the basic science,” Schubert said, “but there are very few medical studies because of this Schedule 1 classification.”
According to Schubert, his particular models look at processes that pharmaceutical companies have ignored. Unlike most other Alzheimer’s drugs, THC and other cannabinoids appear to interact with receptors directly impacted by the disease.
“We believe this is significant,” he said.
The next step in studying this potential treatment is expanding Schubert’s pre-clinical studies with THC. Then the results must be replicated in animals and, if effective, get into clinical human trials. Different strains of marijuana and the cannabinoids in them should be studied to see which are the most effective.
Since making its potential breakthrough, Schubert’s lab has applied to the DEA for a Schedule 1 license, but Schubert isn’t holding his breath. Even if approved by the DEA — the first long-shot hurdle — any marijuana must be obtained through the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a process that can take more than a year on its own. Then the study must be funded by an organization with no federal ties.
“This Schedule 1 classification is totally ridiculous,” Schubert said. “It makes it too difficult for us to actively pursue this.”
At this point, the scientist just wants to get the word out to bigger research companies already studying marijuana that it could also be the key to curing Alzheimer’s.
“You can’t patent a natural product.”
“Cannabis is something that’s out there and that people can use it and it doesn’t have to go through a billion-dollar clinical trial,” he said. “But it’s also something that the drug companies can’t control. And one of the reasons this is still a Schedule 1 drug is because these drug companies want to stop it. They don’t want a natural product to have any medical use because they can’t make money off it.
Originally posted 2017-06-10 12:37:41.