Between a patchwork of state regulations and a lack of federal oversight, there is confusion around the effects of cannabis and how brand owners and product manufacturers can take advantage of them in the current business and regulatory climate.
That’s where Dr. Jeff Chen comes in. Founder and former executive director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative, Chen has also launched Radicle Science, a health tech company designed to make clinical research and data more accessible to CBD and cannabis brands. Chen presented his expertise on the scientific side of cannabis during Cannabis Products Exchange, held virtually April 27-28.
“What I try to clear up is the misconceptions around the science and how that impacts business decisions in the broader regulatory landscape,” he says.
Chen notes that although we’re still uncovering the potential benefits of cannabis in modern times, cannabis has been used for medical purposes for thousands of years, first by Chinese emperor Shen-Nung around 2700 B.C.
Nonetheless, the body’s endocannabinoid system wasn’t discovered until a few decades ago, Chen says. When people ingest something like THC, the body reacts to it like its own endocannabinoids, affecting mood, memory, sleep, appetite, pain, and immune response, among other areas.
And because THC is responsible for the intoxicating effects, over time breeders have selected for cannabis plants that produce more THC, with the ratio of THC to CBD — another important but non-intoxicating cannabinoid — climbing to 100:1 in cannabis seized by the federal government in 2015.
That could have an impact on the “entourage effect,” the theory that a variety of cannabis compounds work together to produce potential health benefits. At this point, researchers are unsure which parts or combinations of parts could be responsible for these benefits.
“When we start talking about the effects of cannabis, how much of it is being driven by THC, CBD, the 100-plus cannabinoids, or the 200-plus terpenes that the cannabis plant can exhibit?” Chen says. “The story gets very complicated very fast.”
While there is no human data available on the entourage effects, Chen points to two animal studies that showed cannabis extracts were more effective at killing cancer cells and reducing inflammation than THC and CBD on their own, respectively. However, what happens in animal studies isn’t always replicated in human studies, so the results should be viewed skeptically, Chen adds.
That said, data show THC can help with nausea and increasing appetite in anorexia patients, Chen says. There is also a little data available illustrating that it can alleviate PTSD, Tourette’s and sleep disorders. There is no clinical data — only anecdotal and survey data — that support THC helping with anxiety.
On the CBD side, there is a lot of research showing its impact on epilepsy, thanks to the approval of drugs like Epidiolex. Chen says there is a little research on its impact on addiction, anxiety, sleep disorders, and the psychotic effects of schizophrenia. There is on clinical research on CBD’s impact on pain.
Chen notes THC can become physiologically and psychologically addictive, affect birth weights, and increase the likelihood of developing schizophrenia in genetically-predisposed, long-term users. Meanwhile, high doses of CBD have been shown to boost the level of other medications in the body.
These concerns, among others, are why the U.S. Food & Drug Administration has asked for clinical research on how CBD products perform. While some data is coming in — including a recent study showing liver toxicity isn’t as much of a concern for CBD use as originally thought — more is needed.
To help fill the gap, Radicle launched the Advancing CBD Education & Science program. It is gathering information on how 10 CBD brands are performing for real customers. Chen says Radicle aims to offer virtual, direct-to-consumer clinical trials, reducing their cost and increasing their speed. The firm can also test different formulations for brands and conduct research to help unlock structure and function claims.
“That data is what we see enabling a new chapter for the industry and these businesses. Once you have proper data, you can make better business decisions and differentiate your brand in the marketplace and in the eyes of retailers.”