Cannabis Health catches up with Dr Ziva Cooper, director of the UCLA’s flagship Cannabis Research Initiative, a world-leader in the scientific study of cannabis.
Launched in the mid-2010s, the UCLA’s Cannabis Research Initiative in the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior was one of the first university programs focused on the multidisciplinary study of cannabis.
In response to the growing availability, access and use of cannabis across the US, the initiative was set up to address an urgent need for greater scientific understanding of the drug and its efficacy.
“There were a lot of unanswered questions that needed to be addressed,” Dr Ziva Cooper says on a Zoom call following a virtual webinar at the New York Academy of Sciences.
“There was already a lot of talk about the therapeutic effects of cannabis, but very little [research] had been done in that area with respect to both the therapeutic effects and the adverse effects,” she says.
Cooper joined the initiative two years after its launch as research director having worked for over a decade at Columbia University studying psychoactive substances and their effects on the brain and body.
Now as director, she leads the multidisciplinary initiative which is paving the way for some of the world’s most ground-breaking research on medical cannabis.
Spanning fifteen different divisions of the university, the Cannabis Research initiative brings together over one hundred experts.
“Research that the faculty is involved with spans a wide range of areas,” she says.
“From understanding the public policy implications of cannabis regulation, to doing the double-blind placebo-controlled studies to understand how cannabis and cannabinoids might be helpful for certain diseases.
“There’s a very strong presence and representation from people across the medical field.”
Cooper’s personal area of research focuses on the various chemical constituents of the cannabis plant that have potential for treating pain. Other areas of her work seek to discover ways of diminishing the adverse effects of cannabis compounds, especially THC – the compound responsible for the ‘high’ associated with cannabis.
“The therapeutic use of THC has been known for a long time,” Cooper says.
“But it’s also known to have adverse effects, such as intoxication and cognitive effects.
“Figuring out ways to diminish those adverse effects and increase the therapeutic effects is really needed if we want to move forward in understanding how THC might be optimised for pain relief.”
In the UK, THC remains illegal for all but a few exceptional medical cases. Only one medication containing THC, known as Sativex, has been approved for medical use and access to it remains out of reach for the majority of patients.
CBD, on the other hand, is becoming increasingly popular and has flourished into an estimated £300 million sector* since becoming recognised as a component of the cannabis plant in 2018.
Advocates claim it can treat a host of different conditions, including pain, sleep issues and anxiety, however research to back this is lacking.
“Even though there’s a lot of buzz about CBD having lots of beneficial effects, there have been very few placebo-controlled studies looking at CBD for the range of effects that people are using it for,” Cooper explains.
“We [UCLA] have a couple of studies with CBD, one of which is looking at CBD for rheumatoid arthritis. This is especially relevant because CBD is thought to be anti-inflammatory; a key aspect of rheumatoid arthritis.”
THC and CBD aren’t the only compounds found in the cannabis plant. There are thought to be more than one hundred unique compounds in the plant that are only just receiving attention from scientists.
The Cannabis Research Initiative is beginning to explore the pain-relieving properties of terpenes, an element of the cannabis plant that has shown potential for decreasing the negative effects of THC and boosting its therapeutic effects.
Cooper says: “Animal studies are ramping up in this area, but with respect to human studies, there’s so little known. They might play an important role in cannabis’ effects and it’s hypothesised that they do, but until we have some indication in the human studies, we really don’t know yet.”
The initiative is also embarking on the first human study on cannabigerol (CBG) which is growing in popularity in the US market for its anti-inflammatory, pain-relieving and appetite-increasing properties.
And as animal studies have suggested a differing response to cannabis between men and women, UCLA has received a grant to further this research and develop an understanding of the variables behind these differences.
Cooper hypothesises that the disparities could be explained by hormonal changes, metabolism or differences between male and female’s endocannabinoid system.
With its one hundred and forty unique chemicals, Cooper believes there is “ground-breaking potential” for the cannabis plant.
But despite believing that there is evidence to suggest its potential efficacy as a therapeutic, she says there is still a long way to go in testing its effectiveness for the hundreds of conditions that people claim it can benefit.
“I recently saw a list of 700 different indications that people think cannabis might be helpful for – I think that we’re pretty far at this point from elucidating if cannabinoids and the chemical constituents in the cannabis plant might be helpful for all 700 of those indications,” she says.
“We know very little about the safety and the effectiveness of cannabis and its chemical constituents for the majority of those indications.”
However, for Cooper, the research being carried out at the UCLA Cannabis Research initiative isn’t about getting a positive or negative finding, it is about learning more about what still remains a massively under-researched area.
She adds: “I’m just hoping that the work we do can really add to the collective efforts internationally about understanding how these chemicals interact with the body, how they interact with other chemicals in the cannabis plant and how different variables might impact their effects.
“My overall hope is that these studies will help push the field forward in a collective way, because I don’t think that any one laboratory or institution can do all this work by itself; it really takes collaboration.
“We feel fortunate that there is this scientific community of researchers that are really helping to drive the field forward in a collective way.”
* According to research commissioned by the Centre for Medical Cannabis
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