Monday, August 3, 2009
Can Cannabis Help Curb Swine Flu?
Company Tables Medical Marijuana for Swine Flu
One Company Hopes a Marijuana Lozenge Will Garner FDA Approval - but
Will It Work?
By COURTNEY HUTCHISON
ABC News Medical Unit
Aug. 3, 2009—
When most people think of swine flu, they probably don't think of
marijuana. But then again, most people aren't Robert Melamede.
He and his company, Cannabis Science, hope to one day make marijuana
available nationwide to kids and teens -- as well as adults -- in the
form of a medicinal throat lozenge.
While medical marijuana has garnered a great deal of attention lately in
helping patients deal with chronic pain, Melamede has another
application in mind; he believes it can curb death risk from the swine
The approach relies on the principle that the chemicals in marijuana
known as cannabinoids have a dampening effect on the immune system.
Melamede said doctors may be able to take advantage of this effect to
curb the risk of death from the immune system overdrive that resulted in
many of the deaths of young adults during the 1918 influenza pandemic --
a scenario that some worry could occur once more if swine flu were to
become more virulent.
It's a controversial approach -- and few infectious disease experts
believe health officials will be quick to approve marijuana
prescriptions for sick kids. Dr. Len Horovitz, a pulmonary specialist at
Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, is one expert who is troubled by
the implications of "giving out THC like water."
"I don't think many parents would want their kids 'on drugs' for a mild,
flu-like illness," he said, "and it's sure to raise hackles with the
Still, Cannabis Science, an emerging pharmaceutical cannabis company of
which Melamede is president and CEO, is working on an edible form of
medicinal marijuana that its officials think will help treat many
infectious diseases, swine flu included. Last month, the company
announced its intention to apply to the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration' s fast track approval process in the hope of making its
anti-flu lozenge available for a possible second wave of swine flu.
Melamede said he has already tried the approach himself. In February,
when he contracted a nasty flu -- a bout he suspects was related to the
H1N1 swine flu virus -- he said he took medicinal marijuana to help his
body fight it off.
Can Cannabis Help Swine Flu Sufferers?
The concentrated cannabis lozenge was an idea pioneered by Steve Kubby,
who, up until two weeks ago, was himself the president and CEO of
Cannabis Science. He, too, said he has self-tested his lozenge.
"Within half an hour of taking it, my runny nose, aching muscles and
throat congestion are all significantly relieved," Kubby said, adding
that users of the lozenge will not get the "high" or "stoned" effects
that come with smoking marijuana.
Though Kubby and the company parted ways over "financial differences, "
new CEO Melamede is pushing forward on this idea with even more vigor.
"Contemporary antiviral medical technology is currently inadequate to
meet the world's immediate challenges," Melamede said in a press release
issued last week. "We believe that cannabis extract-based medicines can
reduce influenza deaths."
Getting Your Immune System to 'Chill Out'
The fact that smoking marijuana suppresses your immune system has been
known for years, but it wasn't until recently that researchers began to
realize that this suppression could be a good thing.
When you catch the flu, your immune system launches a massive attack on
the virus that causes excessive inflammation. This is where the runny
nose, sore throat and achiness come from.
While it is necessary for fighting off the virus, this overwhelming
inflammation can start to kill your own cells and, if it gets out of
hand, it can lead to organ failure and death.
When inflammation goes off the handle, the body releases
endocannabinoids, which are natural chemicals that suppress the immune
system, taking down the inflammation before it does more harm than good.
This endocannabinoid system, as it's called, is one of the many systems
responsible for maintaining balance and health in the body.
In more severe strains of the flu, like avian flu, the endocannabinoid
system can't always keep up. When this happens, the organs, particularly
the lungs, fail.
"They die not from the virus itself but from their own immune response,"
Curbing Immune Response With Cannabis
This is where, according to Cannabis Science, marijuana comes in.
Because the marijuana plant contains natural, plant-based cannabinoids,
called phytocannabinoids, giving cannabis to someone with the flu
supplements their body's endocannabinoid system and helps take down the
But could it work for swine flu? Though the current and ex-CEO might not
meet eye to eye on many things right now, both feel that the potential
for using marijuana for serious strains of the flu, like H1N1, is
"It's such a changeable virus that vaccines might not work," Kubby said.
"But changing the way our bodies respond to the virus [with cannabis]
Marijuana for Flu Puts Experts Out of Joint
While marijuana's anti-inflammatory properties are widely accepted as a
treatment for glaucoma or arthritis, its use as an antiviral raises
eyebrows even among pot-friendly physicians.
"Though it may have some antiviral effects, these have not been proven
scientifically, " says Dr. David Allen, a chest surgeon and cannabinoid
research scientist from California.
Even if suppressing the immune system were the key to fighting off the
ravages of swine flu, Horovitz points out, "there are many other immune
modulators already on the market that are not derived from illegal
Dr. Peter Katona, a member of the FDA's advisory committee on new
antibiotics, shares the apprehension, saying, "I must be skeptical until
there is more data".
And given that parents, not to mention the federal government's war on
drugs, are trying to get kids to "just say no" to marijuana, Melamede's
company could face an uphill climb. To get the FDA on board with giving
an illicit substance to kids, Cannabis Science will likely be forced to
put forth a pretty compelling case for the drug's potential.
Coming to a Pharmacy Near You?
Still, since Steve Kubby left the company two weeks ago, Cannabis
Science has gone into marketing overdrive, publicizing its "talks" with
the FDA and broadcasting the company as a hope for the shaky future of
the swine flu pandemic.
When asked about this publicity, Kubby said he finds it "damaging to the
mission" and feels that Cannabis Science is "not playing by the rules."
Mary Ruwart, who also recently left the company, thinks that Cannabis
Science might be putting the cart before the horse. The preliminary
studies required to apply for FDA clinical trials take months to
complete, she said, and "since these studies were not even on the
drawing board when I left three weeks ago, they cannot have been
Kubby plans to continue his work on the lozenge, which he claimed he has
the exclusive rights to.
"It's a mystery to me how they think they are going to use this
technology," he said.
Melamede maintained that the rights are the property of the company and
hence are his to develop. Either way, both men will move forward with
the technology in the coming months, but it will be a couple years -- if
at all -- before edible products like the cannabis lozenge make it
through the FDA's clinical trials.
Whether marijuana will make the shift from being smoked in the parking
lot of the corner drugstore to gracing its shelves remains unknown.
Kubby noted that the lozenge is a special formulation that acts
differently in the body than inhaled marijuana.
One thing, however, is clear: Smoking marijuana likely will do much more
harm than good if you happen to have a respiratory infection -- not to
mention that smoking anything is damaging to someone with flu-related
As Horovitz put it, "No doctor in his right mind would tell a flu
patient to go smoke a joint."
http://abcnews. go.com/Health/ SwineFluNews/ story?id= 8214468&page= 1