Can cannabis treat asthma? Jerusalem experts to find out

Hebrew University’s Raphael Mechoulam and Francesca Levi-Schaffer to undertake research with funding from UK-Israel startup CIITECH

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Doctor helping a boy with his asthma inhaler (LeventKonuk, iStock by Getty Images)
Doctor helping a boy with his asthma inhaler (LeventKonuk, iStock by Getty Images)

CIITECH, a UK-Israel cannabis biotech startup that seeks to develop and commercialize therapeutic cannabis products, said it would fund a research project together with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to find ways to use cannabis for the treatment of asthma.

CIITECH said the project would be undertaken by the Multidisciplinary Center on Cannabinoid Research of the Hebrew University, and would be led by Prof. Raphael Mechoulam, a pioneer in the field of cannabis research, and his colleague, Prof. Francesca Levi-Schaffer, who specializes in asthma research. The project was selected through a competition, from among a dozen other projects proposed on cannabis research, said CIITECH founder Clifton Flack.

“Israel is the epicenter of R&D on cannabis and most of the work has happened in the Hebrew University,” said Flack by phone. “Asthma is close to my heart as I suffer from the condition.” He did not disclose the amount of funding his firm will provide the project.

Together, the two Hebrew University scientists will start research to see if a derivative of cannabidiol, CBD, has an inhibitory effect on allergic airway inflammations that cause asthma attacks. CBD is the non-psychoactive ingredient of cannabinoid found in both hemp and regular cannabis strains. Last year, the UK Home Office reclassified cannabis, making CBD now legal in the UK, and available in retailers across the country and online, according to a statement by CIITECH.

Hebrew University’s Prof. Raphael Mechoulam (left) with CIITECH’s Clifton Flack (Courtesy)

Asthma is an allergic inflammatory disease of the lungs’ airways common in both in children and in adults, causing a heavy health burden for patients. From 1990 to 2015, the number of asthma cases worldwide has doubled. According to Asthma UK, 5.4 million people there receive treatment for the condition including 1.1 million children, one of the highest rates in Europe. Alongside asthma, other allergic diseases include allergic rhinitis, atopic dermatitis and food allergy, affecting approximately 20% of the global population and continually increasing.

“We know that CBD has anti-inflammatory properties and we’re looking forward to investigating whether this will be effective in treating asthma and related respiratory conditions,” said Hebrew Univeristy’s Mechoulam in the statement.

The Hebrew University’s recently established Multidisciplinary Center on Cannabis Research, headed by Dr. Joseph Tam, serves as one of the world’s leading institutes on the plant. Israel’s supportive regulatory environment and collaborative healthcare ecosystem place the country at the forefront of therapeutic cannabis. Prof. Francesca Levi-Schaffer’s laboratory at the university is focused on finding new ways to treat allergy and recently started to study the effects of cannabis compounds on cells and eosinophils that play a role in allergic diseases.

“Most of the symptoms of allergic disease patients are controlled by either symptomatic drugs or corticosteroids. However, some patients are steroid-resistant and allergic diseases such as severe asthma have been labeled as unmet clinical needs” by the World Health Organization, said Levi-Schaffer. “We believe our research will provide a novel and effective solution to treating this condition.”

One of the greenhouses at Breath of Life Pharma near Beit Shemesh, where producers are anticipating the passage of a law that would allow them to export medical cannabis. (Courtesy)

“As far as we know, two cannabinoid-based research studies have been published on rat and guinea pig models of asthma, the last one in 2015,” said Levi-Schaffer in an emailed response to questions. “This is the first study to assess CBD on human mast cells and eosinophils and in a mouse model of asthma that closely resembles the human disease.” Mast cells and eosinphils are types of white cells that play a role in allergies.

Israel has a critical mass of scientists and clinicians familiar with and open to medical uses for cannabis, a strong biotech industry, and researchers in leading medical institutes and universities who support the work. Researchers at the Hebrew University and elsewhere in Israel have shown that CBD and CBD derivatives work in epilepsy, schizophrenia an other psychiatric diseases, pain, some cancers and Type 1 diabetes. Most of the research has been performed on animals, but in in epilepsy, schizophrenia and anxiety, CBD has been tested successfully in patients, Mechoulam said in emailed comments.

Flack said the research would focus on producing a food supplement rather than a medication, in order to avoid the millions of dollars in investments and the long process of regulatory approvals a medication would require. In addition, for obvious reasons, the eventual product will likely not be a joint to be lit up but tablets or a sort of a inhaler with the necessary CBD to placate the inflammation, said Flack. Levi-Schaffer said the most likely form of medication to emerge from the research will be an inhaled drug based on CBD.

“We hope to have preliminary results of the research in some six months,” Flack said. The company is already marketing CBD-based products in the UK, said Flack, and is looking to back up the products sold with solid research.

“Cannabis could well become this century’s wonder drug,” Flack said. “Many of the plant’s therapeutic benefits and compounds are yet to be explored and we’re excited to take part in expanding and galvanizing this new field of therapy.”

The idea, said Flack, is to do research and development in Israel and market the products as food supplements in the UK. CIITECH will be commissioning Hebrew University for further CBD research on a variety of indications, to be announced in the coming months, he said.

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