Life expectancies in the United States are on the rise, but that doesn't in any way mean we're living an injury-free life.
The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons notes that, on average, hospitals and primary care physicians will treat 6 million people for broken bones each year. Most of these breaks heal on their own with standard care; however, 5% (300,000) heal slowly or not at all based on traditional healing methods, and require more intensive treatment. But what if there were a drug that could be administered which could aid in the healing process to shorten it?
According to researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University, such a drug does exist -- the only problem is it's currently illegal.
The illegal drug that could heal broken bones faster
Researchers, while studying rats with broken femurs, discovered that a specific component found in marijuana could help with the healing and strengthening process of bones.
As published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, cannabidol, or CBD, a cannabinoid found in cannabis plants and the cannabinoid not responsible for the psychoactive effects of marijuana -- that's tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC -- was found to heal broken femurs in rats in just eight weeks. Researchers claimed that not only did the study demonstrate that the rat femurs healed faster, but it also appeared to show that CBD helped bones mineralize better. Thus, scientists postulated that CBD could be a drug worth looking into for the treatment of osteoporosis.
Researchers at both universities also conducted a test where CBD and THC were administered to rats with broken femurs and they noticed no improved effect. In other words, THC as an isolated cannabinoid could have uses in the medical field, but not in healing broken bones.
To be clear, researchers still have no clue if the strengthening in bone mineral witnessed in rats would translate over to humans. Research has shown that the body has a cannabinoid receptor system located within, but whether it would stimulate the formation of bone is a current mystery.
Cannabidol's numerous possible uses
The findings of researchers at Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University of Jerusalem may not actually come as a surprise to some folks because CBD, as a separate entity from THC, in marijuana has shown promise in other indications.
One of the more intriguing CBD formulations is Epidiolex, an experimental liquid therapy developed by GW Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:GWPH) as a treatment for two types of rare childhood-onset epilepsy (Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome). In both instances, Epidiolex demonstrated substantive anti-convulsive effects, with a 56% reduction in seizure frequency for Dravet syndrome patients, and a 52% reduction in drop-seizure frequency, which is associated with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome.
Additionally, GW Pharmaceuticals is examining CBD as a potential target for schizophrenia in an experimental drug known as GWP42003.
Of course, CBD's success in treating rare forms of epilepsy in kids and young adults, as well as potentially strengthening bones, doesn't mean marijuana and its cannabinoids will be suited for treating all illnesses.
In October of last year GW Pharmaceuticals reported disappointing midstage results for GWP42003 as a treatment for ulcerative colitis. Although the trend favored the GWP42003 arm, which contained both the CBD and THC cannabinoids, the 41% disease remission rate was not statistically significant compared to the 30% disease remission rate for the placebo. Also, 12 of the 29 people in the GWP42003 dropped out due to the adverse effects of THC, including dizziness. While GW Pharmaceuticals will continue to look at GWP42003's uses in ulcerative colitis, it's a stark reminder that marijuana and its cannabinoids may not be an end-all, cure-all drug.
Marijuana's big concession
The bigger news for marijuana researchers in recent weeks was the change of heart from the Obama administration by removing 16 years of red tape. The Department of Health and Human Services removed the need for the Public Health Service review process, which was needed prior to the beginning of any benefits research into marijuana.
The PHS review slowed down marijuana research and proved costly, because researchers or businesses had to sit tight while the PHS conducted its review. Under the new process, researchers simply submit an independent new drug application, or IND, to the Food and Drug Administration for review, just like they would with any other drug.
The removal of this red tape has two major effects. First, it'll shorten the time it takes for marijuana-based therapies to make it to human clinical trials. That should save companies like GW Pharmaceuticals valuable time and money.
Secondly, it should encourage researchers (both corporate and university/government-based) to run additional benefits trials on marijuana. Having more benefits studies to view could allow the federal government to come to a determination of marijuana's overall risk vs. benefits profile sooner rather than later.
This is still an extremely risky investment
Despite the encouraging study news out of Israel, and the removal of red tape in the U.S., marijuana itself remains a very risky investment, at best.
For starters, marijuana stocks predominantly trade on the over-the-counter exchanges. Although the OTC markets are doing a better job of regulating companies listed on OTC exchanges, regular quarterly filings aren't a guarantee for OTC stocks. With the exception of GW Pharmaceuticals and Insys Therapeutics (NASDAQ:INSY), it can be difficult to get accurate financial reports from a company involved in the marijuana industry. Without accurate data, making a smart investment is impossible.
To add to the above, with the exception of Insys Therapeutics, all marijuana companies I'm aware of are losing money -- and they'll probably continue to lose money for many more years. The only reason Insys is profitable is due to the sale of Subsys, a sublingual spray containing fentanyl. Its lone CBD drug isn't but a blip of its total sales. This means investors have to take into account that the companies they're buying will be burning cash, and maybe even seeking financing, for the coming years.
And of course, there's the blatant hurdle that marijuana remains an illegal drug per the federal government. The federal government could decide to remove its "hands-off" approach to marijuana at any time in the future and implement its status as illegal. For instance, no one knows what stance the elected president in 2016 will take regarding marijuana, or if regulators have any urgency to reschedule or decriminalize marijuana before longer-term study data on its safety comes in.
All told, marijuana research is certainly encouraging, but it hasn't yielded anything concrete yet. Until it does, the safest place for investors remains on the sidelines.