$3 Million donation puts Philadelphia at the center of cannabis research
The cannabis green rush is spreading throughout the country now that eight states have legalized recreational pot and 28 more have approved medical marijuana.
Pennsylvania is among the latter, with the state’s first medicinal program slated to take off in 2018. Now, a $3 million donation to Thomas Jefferson University from an Australian philanthropist is adding to Philadelphia’s already robust research landscape and helping to create a cannabis corridor in the City of Brotherly Love.
“We are extremely grateful to [Barry and Joy Lambert] for this bold and visionary gift, which will have an immediate impact on our research and education efforts,” says Charles V. Pollack Jr., MA, MD, Director of the Institute of Emerging Health Professions. “From the start we have had an ambitious agenda to elevate the science that underpins the therapeutic use of cannabinoids, and this donation provides a huge boost of momentum to pursue the most promising ideas and potential therapies for a range of conditions.”
Barry Lambert made his fortune as a banking executive who founded Australia’s largest network of accounting-based advisory firms. But he is also the grandfather of a young girl who was diagnosed with a rare genetic epileptic disorder as an infant.
Dravet syndrome begins in early childhood and is characterized by frequent, disabling, daily seizures that can number into the hundreds. Some of these seizures can last more than 30 minutes. If untreated, Dravet can lead to developmental and behavioral problems later in life. According to the Epilepsy Foundation, just one in 20,000 to one in 40,000 children suffer from the disorder.
Medical cannabis has been shown to decrease the frequency and severity of seizures in children with Dravet syndrome, including Lambert’s own granddaughter. After seeing improvements in her health, Lambert became a kind of advocate for furthering research surrounding marijuana’s efficacy.
“We have great confidence that Dr. Pollack and the outstanding team at TJU will produce the research needed to deliver the changes that will ultimately improve the lives of millions of people across the world,” Lambert says.
"We have directly experienced the miraculous life-saving benefits of medicinal cannabis derived from Hemp” said Mr. Lambert. “We are confident that working under modern US regulations, TJU and its innovative, scientific approach will prove to the medical profession the benefits and safety of medicinal cannabis for a broad range of illnesses, not just childhood epilepsy."
The Lambert Center will study how cannabinoids, including cannabidiol, and hemp could be used to treat early onset childhood epilepsy. Previous research has found that cannabidiol (or CBD), which does not contain the psychoactive properties of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and therefore cannot get people high, is effective as an anticonvulsant in animals.
Testing on children remains controversial, and parents whose kids suffer from epilepsy and other disorders have often resorted to relocating to states where medical marijuana is legal.
This includes the co-founder of Pizza Brain, a popular pizza restaurant in Fishtown, whose son has a rare form of eye cancer. Brian James Dwyer moved his family from Philadelphia to Washington last year in a desperate attempt to alleviate his 2-year-old son’s symptoms.
The family was not able to find efficacious treatment at local centers and could not legally find CBD or other cannabis-related treatments. Instead, the young family moved across the country in a desperate attempt to reduce the boy’s suffering.
"I don't know what else to do," Dwyer told Philly Voice earlier this year. "This is what it has come to."
Jefferson’s research center is dedicated to advancing “the scientific basis, research efforts, educational opportunities, positive social impact opportunities, and patient experience associated with the clinical use of cannabis-derived therapies.” Included in its mission is the Entrepreneurship and Social Impact Initiative, which will focus on the “diverse entrepreneurship and social justice issues inherent to the medical cannabis industry.”
Jefferson joins other local research bodies in studying or developing marijuana-based treatment for various health concerns, including cancer, HIV and AIDS, post-traumatic stress disorder, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, among many others.
For instance, Ananas, a tech startup founded by two Lafayette College graduates, is just one of several new companies popping up in the state, whose relationship with Big Pharmaceuticals makes the region ground zero for cannabis research. One of Ananas’ first ventures is the creation of The Newton, an induction vaporizer that delivers an exact amount of marijuana dosage for patients. It does this via the controlled release of particular cannabinoid chemicals.
"We recognize that within the market, there’s a lack of precise methods of patients to consume cannabis," says Ananas co-founder Roberto Lombino.
Because marijuana is illegal on the federal level - it is considered a Schedule 1 drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration - the device cannot be covered by health insurance and could cost between $600 to $800.
But continued research by Jefferson University and other area institutions could help to eventually provide more affordable access to cannabis-based treatment.
“We believe that expert, patient-focused pharmacists will play a critical role in future dispensing of medical cannabis products,” says Patricia A. Epple, CEO of the Pennsylvania Pharmacists Association. “Jefferson’s Center provides valuable resources and leadership to help create this new class of professionals.”