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Illicit Oncology

As you well know from reading this blog and watching her movie, Michelle was intensely frustrated by the paucity of rigorous research on cannabis and cancer. From her own early experiences with cannabis, Michelle knew that the details of what was in the cannabis mattered; but, lacking research, the best that the prescribing physicians could recommend was, “take as much as possible of all the major cannabinoids.” This was what Michelle was doing through the last 2 years of her illness; but it wasn’t clear how much it was helping.

Within the medical cannabis world, there’s a lot of quasi-magical thinking about the benefits of “whole plant medicine;” it’s even been dressed up to sound scientific as the “entourage effect.” And while there certainly can be synergies among the various connabinoids, terpenes, and flavinoids in cannabis, Michelle’s attitude was, “It’s ultimately just chemistry. There are probably just a handful of compounds, maybe even just 2 or 3, that are doing all the work. If we can isolate those, then we can get a far more effective and consistent treatment.” There are good reasons that we take an aspirin instead of chewing on willow bark! And in cannabis, there can be negative interactions among the compounds as well as positive ones, leading to decreased medical benefit.

Michelle watched lots of recorded lectures by leading cannabis scientists. This is clearly well into the pandemic as Dr. Meiri is speaking from his office instead of on a conference stage!

So in late 2019, we hatched the idea of directly funding preclinical research on cannabis and ovarian cancer, to identify the compounds that were most effective at killing the cancer cells. Michelle initially approached Dr. David Meiri, the Israeli scientist featured in the film who was doing some of the pioneering work on cannabis and cancer, but he said that his lab was already overflowing with funding and projects. So during the first pandemic summer of 2020, while she was appearing on podcasts and getting her story out the world, Michelle was also writing to all the scientists she could find who worked on cannabis and any form of cancer (even still, nobody was working on ovarian). Mostly she didn’t hear anything back (those of you who are busy academics can easily understand why), but eventually she got an enthusiastic reply from Dr. Hinanit Koltai, a plant scientist at the national agricultural research institute in Israel.

Hinanit, who was using similar approaches as Dr. Meiri to study the effects of cannabis on other cancers, was enthusiastic about the potential for cannabis as a treatment for ovarian cancer, and over a series of zoom meetings developed a close personal connection with Michelle as well. She was fully on board with the idea of doing research with the twin goals of helping extend Michelle’s life in the short run, and developing new prescription drugs in the long term. And so a partnership was formed!

That fall was a flurry of research proposals and contract drafts. It turned out that the institute needed the funds to be coming from a company rather an individual, so we quickly set one up; looking for a name on a day’s notice we came up with Canna Onc Research (from Cannabinoid Oncology). It took a little while for the lab to obtain the cell cultures, but then results started coming in fast and furious in late winter and early spring 2021.

Why didn’t Michelle share any of this at the time? Because of the potential commercial value of the research, as well as the competitive and fast-moving nature of the field (everywhere except the US!), she was required to sign a non-disclosure agreement. And then last spring, once the project and its results were no longer secret, she was hoping to link the big reveal to the publication of the paper. But peer review has taken far longer than she had hoped (again, academics will understand). And so it falls to me to tell this part of Michelle’s story.

By now you are probably wondering, What did they learn? Did it help Michelle? And What next? Answers to these burning questions will be revealed in future posts (but if you want a sneak peek you can look at the preprint).

P.S. The title of this post is lifted from the title that Michelle wanted to use for her memoir, with a subtitle of “curing my cancer with an illegal drug.”

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