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University of Pittsburgh researchers hope to participate in medical marijuana clinical research studies

Ben Schmitt
| Monday, Oct. 23, 2017, 9:00 p.m.
A leaf of marijuana (AP Photo)
A leaf of marijuana (AP Photo)

Some patients will be asked to participate in clinical trials once Pennsylvania's medical marijuana program becomes fully operational.

There's also a good chance the University of Pittsburgh will conduct some of the research.

The state is angling to become a national leader in medical marijuana research in conjunction with offering treatment to patients in need.

“Today, there is a limited amount of evidence-based research for the use of medical marijuana, relative to what is available for traditional pharmaceuticals,” Dr. Rachel Levine, acting state Secretary of Health and Physician General, said in a statement to the Trib. “Through Pennsylvania's clinical research programs, we hope to be able to provide practitioners with more evidence-based research to guide their clinical decisions.”

The state's medical marijuana law created eight special permits to be used for clinical research studies. Pennsylvania was the first state to write a research component into its law.

“This type of research is absolutely critical,” Pittsburgh attorney Patrick Nightingale, executive director of the Pennsylvania Medical Cannabis Society, said. “The goal is to try and facilitate as much real time patient data and patient information as possible.”

A major reason for the lack of cannabis research is the Drug Enforcement Administration's classification of marijuana as a Schedule I illegal substance with no approved medical applications. Such a classification scares off some medical institutions fearing that marijuana research could jeopardize federal funding, Nightingale said. Compiling a lot of data to show medical benefits could challenge the current Schedule 1 classification.

“Potentially, this research can also lead to identifying new illnesses that respond well to treatment or even new forms of the medication,” Levine seaid.

Pitt's school of medicine confirmed in a statement to the Trib that it plans to participate in medical marijuana research.

“The University Of Pittsburgh School Of Medicine has entered into an agreement with a medical cannabis company that is applying for a Clinical Registrant license in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” the statement said. “The partnership will allow the school of medicine to conduct scientific research to determine the safety and efficacy of medical cannabis products in treating specific diseases. Due to strict confidentiality agreements we are unable to provide any additional information at this time.”

The application process for the eight clinical research licenses has not yet opened, said April Hutcheson, a health department spokeswoman. Applicants must prove they have at least $15 million in capital.

Participating medical schools and hospitals, like Pitt, will require a partner to grow, process and dispense medical marijuana separate from the current licensees in the program. The state law says that any patient issued a medical marijuana card could be asked to participate in a study, but the patient has the right to decline.

Under state law, patients — after consulting with doctors — can apply for a state-issued medical marijuana card if a doctor certifies that they have one of 17 qualified medical conditions, including epilepsy, cancer, multiple sclerosis and seizure disorders.

Diana Briggs, whose 17-year-old son Ryan suffers multiple seizures a day, is among state residents granted permission to purchase medical marijuana from others states until Pennsylvania's program is up and running. The research portion of the legislation is crucial, she said.

“It's probably my proudest part of the legislation,” said Briggs, of Export. “When we were advocating to pass this medical marijuana bill, opponents were always saying, ‘Oh, the benefits are anecdotal. There's no research behind it.' Now we will be able to ultimately show proof that it works.”

Before using medical marijuana for her son, Briggs said he suffered more than 400 seizures a day. Marijuana treatment cut those down to less than 100 a day.

“If we can put my evidence down into factual research, that's going to help others,” she said. “Doctors want to help their patients. Now we'll be able to show our research and share it.”

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991, bschmitt@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @Bencschmitt.

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