The world has been abuzz with the transformational potential of 3D printers for quite some time now. For years we've been discussing their potential to reduce the time it takes to prototype industrial parts and how it could save businesses millions, perhaps billions, of dollars in long-term costs.
But the reality is that we've only touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to 3D printing and its capabilities. It may one day be possible to print food to end hunger, or perhaps create human organs to be used to extend the length of, and improve the quality of, our lives.
For one company in Israel, combining the aspects of 3D printing and therapeutics is quickly becoming a reality.
Yes, this is a real thing!
As reported by Forbes, Syqe Medical is developing a 3D printed, pocket-sized inhaler that can be used to precisely dose medical marijuana patients with cannabis. Furthermore, Syqe Medical's devices will be Wi-Fi enabled in order to connect doctors to patients in real-time to ensure a high level of dosing specialization and to monitor that patients are receiving the proper dose.
Perhaps even more intriguing than the rise of 3D printing, this prototype inhaler creates an intriguing pathway by which medical marijuana patients can potentially be dosed with cannabis. By making the dose specific and easy to administer, Syqe Medical hopes it'll be able to persuade the public, physicians, and perhaps regulatory agencies around the globe that its product is a safe and effective means of dosing cannabis. Per the report, Stratasys (NASDAQ:SSYS), one of the world's largest 3D printing companies, is responsible for manufacturing about three-quarters of the 3D printed components for the inhaler. Because 3D printing is still in its infancy, the report notes that Stratasys was able to expedite delivery of these inhaler components well ahead of schedule.
While intriguing, there's still a long way to go
Although advancements like this are truly revolutionary and exciting, and demonstrate what the future of medical care might look like, the reality of this happening is probably no more than a long shot in the United States, at least for the time being.
Medical marijuana faces a number of hurdles within the United States. To begin with, it remains a schedule 1 drug according to the Drug Enforcement Agency, meaning broader approval of the cannabis for medical use may not be on the table. At the moment the federal government is keeping its distance from the 23 states which have legalized marijuana, but the federal government could, at any time, change its view and assert federal law which still classifies marijuana as an illicit drug.
Secondly, and building on the first point, it remains to be seen if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or physicians would make a medical marijuana prescription a mainstream therapy. Currently, GW Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:GWPH) has three ongoing late-stage studies of experimental drug Sativex to treat cancer pain. Though the U.S. has yet to approve any drug derived from the cannabis plant, Sativex is approved in close to two-dozen countries abroad (mostly in Europe). There are so many factors at play here that could have wide-ranging implications for future medical marijuana usage.
The long-term safety effects of marijuana are another point of contention, which seem to change depending on the source. A recently published abstract in JAMA Internal Medicine suggests that in states where medical marijuana was legal between 1999-2010 the average reduction in opioid-induced overdose deaths was nearly 25% (one of medical marijuana's common uses is as a chronic pain reliever, which is typically what many opioid's are prescribed for). The implication for those favoring medical marijuana's approval is that it could reduce opioid overdose deaths and dramatically reduce healthcare costs associated with opioid overdoses.
Yet, you don't have to look very far to discover reports that highlight the possible dangers of marijuana. Just last month the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre in Australia released findings from a study that tracked close to 3,800 individuals from adolescence until age 30. What they found was that adolescents aged 17 and under that were daily marijuana users were 60% less likely to graduate high school or earn a college degree, were 18 times more likely to be dependent on cannabis, and were seven times more likely to attempt suicide. Long story short, marijuana's long-term effects on the body are still up for debate.
Finally, even public perception of marijuana may be plateauing. There's no mistaking that Americans' opinions on legalization have changed dramatically over the past couple of decades. Based on Gallup's survey in October 2013, 58% of respondents favored legalization compared to just 12% in 1969. However, a poll released just weeks ago from the Public Religion Research Institute showed that only 44% of respondents in its survey favored legalization, down from 51% in 2013. If consumer perception levels off it's possible medical marijuana's momentum could wane.
This will be a long developing story
Ultimately, there's plenty of promise for cannabis as a therapeutic agent, but the timeline in which most people expect it to make a sizable impact is probably unrealistic.
As you can see from the concerns listed above, medical marijuana has a number of issues still to address. The FDA will certainly give us strong insight into its views if and when GW Pharmaceuticals' Sativex is successful in phase 3 studies and comes up for review. Until such time, medical marijuana's fate and market potential is likely to swing wildly as the reports, studies, and perceptions are published. Investing in these stocks continues to be akin to playing with fire.