UCI’s Leading Endocannabinoid Researcher Talks Cannabis, Medicine and Society

UCI’s Leading Endocannabinoid Researcher Talks Cannabis, Medicine and Society

(Courtesy of UCI Dept. of Pharmacology)
UCI’s Dr. Piomelli, Endocannabinoid Researcher (Courtesy of UCI Dept. of Pharmacology)

 

This Friday C.A.R.E— a non-profit organization dedicated to cannabis awareness, research and events– and UC Irvine are hosting Understanding Cannabis: Medicine and Society, a panel discussion focusing on different areas of the cannabis industry. The panel will include Lori Ajax, the Chief of the Bureau of Medical Cannabis Regulation (BMCR) who’ll address the complex regulatory issues surrounding medical marijuana. Last Friday, April 28th, the BMCR posted its licensing regulations for medical cannabis. The regulations are comprehensive and set specific licensing and enforcement criteria for commercial cannabis businesses, including: Distributors, transporters and dispensaries. Although these regulations only apply to medical and not recreational marijuana, tomorrow will be one of Ajax’s first post-regulation appearances, making for an informative discussion.

 

The infamous Dana Rohrabacher, who’s often referred to as “weed Jesus,” will be on tomorrow’s panel, too. The congressman is also a member of the newly launched Congressional Cannabis Caucus, a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers dedicated to developing policy reforms to bridge the gap between federal laws banning cannabis and laws in states that have legalized it for medical or recreational purposes. Rohrabacher will discuss the legislative challenges posed by cannabis legalization.

 

Also, Dr. Daniele Piomelli, UCI’s leading Endocannabinoid researcher, and a professor of anatomy and neurobiology, pharmacology and biological chemistry, will discuss the benefits and risks of medical cannabis. Dr. Piomelli’s double-decade career has put him on the front lines of cannabis science, giving him a knowledgeable perspective many of us lack. He’s been involved in this field of science for so long that many (if not most) Endocannabinoid researchers in this specific field have come from his lab.

 

Dr. Piomelli has included UCI’s film studies in the discussion to shed light on the way popular culture and movies have shaped the general view of cannabis, how it’s effected the societal position of the plant and the decisions people make about it. We caught up with Dr. Piomelli to get a feel for what’s to be expected at tomorrow’s panel. What we concluded is that it’ll be nothing short of enlightening.

 

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How did the Endocannabinoid system become your main focus of study?

I got involved with Endocannabinoid research soon after its receptors were first identified in the late ’80s. In 1994, while working as a researcher in Paris, my colleagues and I published a study in the Scientific Journal of Nature showing how the Endocannabinoid compound anandamide is produced.

 

The chemical structure of an anadamide is akin to a family of molecules I had done my thesis work and post doctoral work on at Columbia University. When it came out, I was freshly out of post doc and in my first faculty position in France. When the structure of the anandamide came out, it was simple for me—the interest was already there. I had interest in the Endocannabinoid system because I appreciated how interesting cannabinoid drugs are and how different they are from any other drugs. It seemed to me that we knew nothing about them. The cannabinoid receptor had just been discovered and clearly the localization of the receptor in the brain—at least the rat brain—was so striking. So many important regions of the brain had high levels of expression of the receptor that it almost begged for studies on the endogenous system that activated the receptor.

 

So when the structure of an anandamide came out I immediately jumped on that. I had a very small lab. I only had three people working with me, and I called them up and I said, ‘listen, folks: this paper changes my life, stop doing what ever you’re doing, finish it up and we’re going to work on this 100 percent of the time going forward. I am a pharmacologist, but I am also a chemist so coming from that perspective, the following three or four years we were able to identify the pathways by which these different compounds are produced in the brain cells and how they’re stored by brain cells.

 

What else do you study?

I work on other compounds similar to the Endogenous cannabinoids (Endocannabinoids) but do not work on cannabinoid receptors. They’re Endocannabinoid-like molecules, para-Endocannabinoids we call them, that also serve very exciting functions in the body.

 

Do you use cannabis?

My interested in cannabis is through my studies. A lot of people come to cannabis because they smoke it or they use it, but that’s not at all me. I actually never used it at all before I started working on it. I didn’t like any drug and I didn’t think that smoking was something I was interested in. When I became involved with it scientifically, however, I had to try it. I’ve used it several times, like maybe 20-30 times. Throughout my life I’ve used it as if it were a scientific quest, but not so much as a personal reward type of thing. So I really come from a completely different angle than a lot of other people.

 

How has your interest in cannabis evolved?

It’s evolved slowly but surly over the last 25 years because there are so many things that the Endocannabinoids do that explain that explain what cannabis does. There are so many issues that cannabis has that can be explain through the Endocannabinoid systems. I think the future of therapeutics is either cannabis based or Endocannabinoid based. But they are deeply interconnected and secondly they depend on one another, so it is really very important for anybody in my line of work to have a broad view– not just noted to one particular Endocannabinoid or just Endocannabinoids, but rather to Endocannabinoids at large, plus how cannabis interacts with the Endocannabinoid system.

 

How long has the Endocannabinoid research program been at UCI?

I have been at UCI, well [laughs]…perhaps too long. I have been there for 19 years. But I have been studying Endocannabinoids for 25 years. The UCI program has been around for almost 20 years . . . Even though we have been covered by publications like the New York Times, Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal… this kind of thing never really makes it to the mainstream media, and it may never. A lot of people don’t really care– and rightly so. But this is the kind of work that’s needed if we want any medicines to be developed and that’s one thing that I really care about. But the proof of the pudding is in the research. This whole thing is a puzzle. If we can really come up with solutions to real life problems, then we are correctly solving the puzzle.

 

That’s what my lab has done over the last 10 years. We’ve developed at least four or five new classes drugs which have all been based around the Endocannabinoid system, whether dealing with the Endocannabinoid system themselves or para-Endocannabinoids…But it hasn’t been easy. There’s always struggles with funding and science can be very frustrating sometimes. But the reason why we do this is to understand the risks and the benefits of cannabis, because it is a drug. But we deserve to know the risks and benefits, and move forward with the proper data.

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