This 85-Year-Old Chemist Has Made Deciphering Marijuana’s Medical Secrets His Life’s Work


Raphael Mechoulam, an Israeli chemist, is best known for his work in the field of cannabis, including helping to isolate and synthesize its active component, called THC. But he is increasingly impatient to see his findings translate into clinical trials.

At the age of 85, he is hopeful the field to which he has devoted his life’s work has reached a possible inflection point. In March, the National Institutes of Health held a neuroscience research summit focused on marijuana and cannabinoids.

Monday, he’s in Boston attending a personalized cannabinoid medicine conference, where he’ll meet with other scientists in the burgeoning field and pick up a lifetime achievement award. Even after so many years of research, he says, “There are so many things to look into.”

Here are edited excerpts from the conversation with Dr. Mechoulam.

WSJ: You are credited with isolating the psychoactive component of cannabis, called THC, as well as identifying the endogenous cannabinoid system. What do endocannabinoids do?

Dr. Mechoulam: The compound in cannabis, the THC, actually mimics something going on in our body, a natural thing. This is not something unusual. We have seen that many, many times with a lot of other drugs…We thought if this compound mimics something happening in the body…then let’s find (it)…We started looking for these compounds and after quite a lot of work…we found two compounds. We called one of these compounds anandamide and the other 2-AG.

WSJ: You believe anandamide might play a role in human health. Where do things stand with testing that idea?

Dr. Mechoulam: Anandamide has never been given to humans. In order to give a compound to a human, one has to go through a number of steps and these cost money and nobody has done it. So strangely enough, we are in an unusual position when, for example, insulin was discovered in the early 20s, almost 100 years ago, it was looked into and became a drug within six months. It was administered to human beings shortly after it was discovered. It’s being used today. Anandamide, which was discovered 25 years ago, has never been given to humans.

WSJ: Why not?

Dr. Mechoulam: Because in the 20s when insulin was discovered, the regulations were probably not as strict as they are today and one could do some toxicity studies, see insulin doesn’t cause any major toxicity, and start giving it. Anandamide has not been investigated in this way. It costs a lot of money to do it, there is no patent, nobody will do it because of the lack of patent. So here we have a strange situation that medicine in the 20s was faster, more efficient than it is today, in that particular area. If insulin were discovered today it would take five years or six years or maybe 10 years to become a drug. Is that a good situation? Well, I think it is not.

WSJ: You and a colleague established the structure of cannabidiol , a component of marijuana. What role could it play in human health?

Dr. Mechoulam: The cannabidiol was discovered in the late 30s, early 40s, both in the UK and the US. The structure was not known, the activity was not known, so it was left behind. In the early 60s, we reisolated cannabidiol from cannabis and proved its structure. We worked with some South Americans on animal models of epilepsy and we found that it works. Then we did a clinical trial. It was published 35 years ago. We had 15 (epilepsy) patients that nothing else was working in them. We took half of them, 7 or 8 continued whatever they were taking…and 7 or 8 took the drugs but had cannabidiol [too].

GW Pharmaceuticals has said its cannabis-derived drug for children with severe epilepsy significantly reduced the number of seizures. Above, a marijuana plant. ENLARGE
GW Pharmaceuticals has said its cannabis-derived drug for children with severe epilepsy significantly reduced the number of seizures. Above, a marijuana plant. PHOTO: REUTERS
And we found that those 7 or 8 patients that were getting the [cannabidiol], 4 out of them had no epileptic attacks for three or four months and three others had much less and only one was not affected at all. By contrast those that did not get cannabidiol continued their attacks. We published that and I thought something would happen. But nothing happened for 30 years, and I was kind of disappointed… [There is now an ongoing] major clinical study with cannabidiol in epilepsy. It’s a shame really that one had to wait for 30 years when these facts were in the literature.

WSJ: Why do you think it took so long?

Dr. Mechoulam: There was a stigma probably using something coming from cannabis. I see no reason for that. The fact it comes from a plant that has a stigma on it is irrelevant, totally irrelevant.


Source:  The Wall Street Journal