Temple cannabis research continues amid potential easing of federal laws

Researchers at Temple hope to expand their studies on marijuana’s medicinal properties as the substance becomes more federally accepted.

Temple's research on marijuana coincides with the increase of laws permitting the use of marijuana. | ERIKA MONN / THE TEMPLE NEWS

As a new academic year begins, Temple remains among the top four-year universities in the highest research activity category, hitting a milestone of $300 million in research expenditures, wrote Acting President JoAnne Epps in a message to the Temple community on the first day of classes.

Central to Temple’s research efforts is the study of medicinal cannabis which, since 1998, the university has examined for treating health complications including chronic pain and food allergies.

“Temple has been one of the universities in the country at the forefront of cannabinoid research for well over a decade now,” said Sara Jane Ward, a neural sciences professor in the Center for Substance Abuse Research at Lewis Katz School of Medicine. 

Temple’s cannabis research coincides with federal moves to potentially regulate the substance in a less restrictive manner. Just last week, the United States Department of Health and Human Services recommended to the Drug Enforcement Agency that marijuana be moved from the Schedule I category of drugs to the Schedule III category, The Washington Post reported

Schedule I drugs are classified as substances with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse, according to the DEA’s website. The classification includes heroin and LSD.

A move to the Schedule III category would place marijuana with drugs, like ketamine and other prescription medications, that have a moderate-to-low potential for physical and psychological dependence.

“I do think things are going to change by regulation and otherwise, and so it’s quite an interesting opportunity, for taking something that’s been perceived as somehow bad and changing the perception,” said J. Todd Abrams, senior director of new ventures and business development in the Office of the Vice President for Research. “And we do need to use it safely and understand it thoroughly and treat it like a medicine and not as a recreational tool.”

In 2017, Temple partnered with Laurel Harvest Labs, a Pennsylvania grower and dispensary, to research the substance. In 2021, the dispensary was bought by Cresco Labs, a publicly traded, multi-state medical marijuana company, which now funds some of Temple’s cannabis-related research.

The Cresco partnership has supported a number of research endeavors, including cancer and cellular biology professor Kelly Whelan’s lab. Whelan focuses on using cannabis to help patients who are impacted by esophageal diseases, including inflammation of the esophagus and esophageal cancer.

Whelan, who is also a professor at the Temple-based Fels Cancer Institute for Personalized Medicine, has been studying how the drug can help with eosinophilic esophagitis, an immune condition that is an emerging form of food allergy. 

Typically, EoE is treated with steroids or dietary elimination, which refers to finding the food trigger and removing it from a person’s diet, Whelan said. Both forms of treatment do come with challenges. Steroids have long-term side effects, and it can often be difficult to determine the food that is causing the allergy for dietary elimination.

“I think that there is just a nucleus of researchers here who are interested in cannabis through CSR, the Center for Substance Abuse Research, and beyond,” Whelan said.

Securing funding for research, which can sometimes feel daunting, has gotten much easier, said Ward, whose research focuses on the effectiveness of the cannabis plant or synthetic-derived alternatives to treat chronic pain. Writing a National Institute of Health-style grant can be a very large endeavor, she added.

“With the collaboration with Cresco and the availability of this new source of funding, it’s a much more feasible approach for an investigator who might have been interested in cannabinoids but doesn’t have a lot of preliminary data already,” Ward said.

It wasn’t always possible to collaborate with a business that grows marijuana. Before the passing of the Medical Marijuana Act of 2016, federal funding was required for cannabis research, Abrams said. 

Still, there are limitations to what Temple can do with research involving THC. To obtain the agent, the university has to purchase it through federal sources. Additionally, Cresco cannot fund the project with any money made through medical marijuana sales. The university also has a special license to work with the substance in its labs, Abrams said.

Most adults in the United States think that marijuana should be legalized, with 59 percent saying it should be legal medicinally and recreationally and 30 percent saying it should just be legal for medical use, according to an October 2022 Pew Research Center survey.

Whelan believes that even though cannabis is being legalized around the country, there is still a stigma around using it in therapy, even though it can be very effective for pain management and other uses.

“We have to start to really drill down on the mechanisms through which cannabis can help with either therapy or prevention of diseases, and maybe that will help to alleviate some of that stigma, but I think it’s a really important area of research using natural agents,” Whelan said.

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