University doctors discuss medical marijuana

The drug is legal medically in 23 states and Washington D.C., and could be legalized in Pennsylvania following more testing.

Dr. Sara Jane Ward, a Research Assistant Professor works in the Center for Substance Abuse Research Feb. 8. Dr. Ward is conducting research concerning the medical application of marijuana. | PATRICK CLARK TTN

A team of doctors and professors at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine is studying medical marijuana—a politically contested drug legalized in 23 states and Washington, D.C. They are exploring preclinical research utilizing components of the marijuana plant or synthetic compounds engineered in the lab.

Researchers like Sara Jane Ward, research assistant professor in the Center for Substance Abuse Research, are investigating the positive and negative effects of chemicals from the marijuana plant. Animals like mice are the most common test subjects, because there are no active programs testing on humans.

Chemicals from the marijuana plant can be used to treat disorders and injuries in the nervous system, multiple sclerosis, neuropathic pain, spinal cord injury and can protect against stroke.

“A lot of it for us is trying to understand how these drugs are working,” Ward said. “We’re at the beginning of understanding how they’re working in the body.”

Mice are treated with chemicals from the marijuana plant or synthesized chemicals before being induced with one of the injury models, like chemotherapy, which can be toxic to some cells in the body. With this method, researchers can “really see exciting protective benefits,” Ward said.

“If we get the medicines on board first, we see less damage,” she added.

Ron Tuma, a professor of physiology and neurosurgery at the Center and Ward’s primary collaborator, has been involved in looking at stroke and head injuries with animal models and the therapeutic potential of cannabinoid-based compounds for the past 10 years.

Preclinical results indicate promising potential uses like the possibility of decreasing inflammation and the severity of stroke, Tuma said.

The preclinical stage of the research means doctors are trying to hone in on the therapeutic aspects of the chemicals while trying to avoid any of the adverse effects, like substance abuse or dependence liabilities.

“The goal is to understand and design medications that harness the beneficial effects and lessen the negative effects,” Ward said. “[Researchers need to] figure out which aspect of the chemicals that are working and figure out which properties aren’t related to the euphoric sensations.”

The challenge, as with most types of research, is funding, Tuma said.

The research team has received grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Defense and has also published its findings in multiple medical journals. Researchers received the most recent grant from the DOD last Thursday and submitted another grant request to the NIH, he added.

There’s a “slow progression from research into clinics,” Tuma said. The ultimate goal is to develop new medication strategies and implement drugs to do targeted therapeutics. Pharmaceutical companies and biotech companies will eventually work on developing some of these drugs.

Lian Parsons can be reached at or on Twitter @Lian_Parsons.

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