Cannabis for veterinary patients gets research attention, funding

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More than five years after the first states legalized recreational marijuana, leading to a proliferation of cannabis products for pets and people alike, momentum is building to scientifically document whether cannabis makes good medicine for veterinary patients.

In the first study to attract substantial independent funding in the United States, a neurologist at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences has begun enrolling patients in a clinical trial to test the effects of the cannabis compound cannabidiol on 60 epileptic dogs who respond poorly to standard treatment. The American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation (AKC CHF) has awarded the research $356,022.

At Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine in Alabama, the director of the clinical pharmacology laboratory also plans a clinical trial of cannabidiol in epileptic patients, along with other cannabis-related research. Her work has received $150,000 in analytical equipment and pilot-study funding, with a promise of more to come, from a nonprofit called Pet Conscious. The organization is associated with Canna-pet, a Washington company that sells cannabis-derived capsules, oils and biscuits for cats and dogs.

For human patients, a large body of lore and a smaller body of science support the concept of cannabis as effective medicine for an array of conditions — pain, neurological disorders, nausea, anorexia, anxiety and sleep disturbances, to name a few. A report, “The Health Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids: The Current State of Evidence and Recommendations for Research,” published by the National Academy of Sciences in January 2017, is a comprehensive review of the hard evidence to date. In a few areas, the authors found conclusive or substantial evidence of medical benefit — specifically, for the treatment of chronic pain in adults; as antiemetics to quell chemotherapy-induced nausea; and to address spasticity in patients with multiple sclerosis.

People considering cannabis for their own ills inevitably wonder whether animal companions with similar conditions could benefit, too. There, scientific documentation has been scarce to non-existent.

Dr. Dawn Boothe, an internist and clinical pharmacologist at Auburn, 16 months ago lamented the dearth of support for cannabis research in veterinary medicine, owing to the federal government’s stance that marijuana has no medical benefit. Boothe told the VIN News Service that she’d tried to obtain private funding without success. Shortly afterward, Canna-pet offered her seed money.

So far, the most likely sources of financial support are businesses that sell cannabis products. The work at Colorado State attracted the substantial AKC CHF grant only because the researcher, Dr. Stephanie McGrath, had done a safety study. That early work was funded by Applied Basic Science Corp., a Colorado company interested in producing and selling cannabis as medicine for dogs.

McGrath’s promising early findings using cannabidiol oil produced by Applied Basic Science enabled the AKC CHF, a leading funder of canine health research, to support further work. “You don’t just jump into a clinical trial with any product unless you have preliminary safety and dosing information specific to that species,” said Dr. Diane Brown, CEO of the foundation. “All AKC CHF-funded research undergoes rigorous scrutiny through our Scientific Review Committee, and this proposal raised some unique questions.”

The reviewers had to settle their nerves about supporting a study involving a plant that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) regulates as a Schedule I controlled substance, meaning that the federal government considers it to have no medical benefit and a high potential for abuse. “There was a lot of discussion about the potential backlash; the politics,” Brown said. “Is this going to be frowned upon? Is this legitimate science?”

The foundation concluded that in addition to anecdotal evidence that cannabis has medicinal benefits, there’s a compelling safety reason to support research: “Some people are administering cannabis products to dogs based on [consulting] Dr. Google, so it really is important for the AKC CHF to take a leadership role, demonstrating responsibility and making an investment to acquire scientifically-driven data for dogs,” Brown said.

Ultimately, the foundation was proud to take the step. “We are excited to be at the forefront supporting the first clinical trial for a cannabis product for drug-resistant epilepsy in dogs,” Brown said.

Still, the battle for legitimacy and support for cannabis research in veterinary medicine is far from over.

Institutional resistance lingers

McGrath, the neuroscientist leading the epilepsy study in dogs, has struggled to get her pilot work on cannabis published. Her first study sponsored by Applied Basic Science examined the pharmacokinetics of cannabidiol oil in 30 research beagles — what different dosages and delivery systems looked like in the dogs’ blood, and whether there were any harmful side effects. (There were not.)

When it came time to report the results, McGrath met resistance from several scientific journals in the United States.

“They did not feel that the product was federally legal, therefore, they wouldn’t publish a manuscript on a product that was not federally legal. That’s what they either alluded to or outright said,” McGrath recounted.

She had to reach outside the country to find a receptive publication. In January, the study was accepted by the Canadian Veterinary Journal, which McGrath said expects to publish the research in October.

The question of legality of cannabis products in the United States, especially those containing the active agent cannabidiol — CBD in shorthand — is convoluted and confounding because the laws are inconsistent.

As explained in guidelines from the Colorado State University Office of the General Counsel and Office of the Vice President for Research, the federal Controlled Substances Act outlaws the possession, cultivation and use of Cannabis sativa, otherwise known as marijuana. However, the Agricultural Act of 2014, section 7606, allows for the cultivation of industrial hemp, defined as “the plant Cannabis sativa L. and any part of such plant, whether growing or not, with a delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol concentration of not more than 0.3 percent on a dry weight basis.”

The distinction is this: Delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana that causes euphoria, or a “high.” But THC is just one biologically active ingredient in cannabis among many that are believed to have a potentially therapeutic effect, CBD chief among them. Cannabis growers say plant strains exist that produce high levels of CBD and low levels of THC. Under the Agricultural Act definition, any cannabis plant that has little to no THC is industrial hemp that may be grown “for purposes of research conducted under an agricultural pilot program or other agricultural or academic research” in states that have laws allowing such.

According to the Colorado State guidelines and fact sheet, Colorado law permits research on and commercial cultivation of industrial hemp by growers who have registered with the state Department of Agriculture. The university has state permission to grow hemp indoors and out in specified locations.

The nuance and conflict in federal law is unrecognized by a recent document prepared by the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Council on Biologic and Therapeutic Agents, “Cannabis: What Veterinarians Need to Know.” The guide, published in January, relays the DEA position that all derivatives of the marijuana plant, including CBD, are illegal under the Controlled Substances Act. The AVMA guide states: “Marijuana and its derivatives including CBD are federally illegal …” and does not mention the 2014 farm bill.

By:Edie Lau, Vin News Service

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