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Three MCV professors hope to market marijuana and nicotine derivatives for new medicinal treatments.

Old Drugs, New Uses


A better treatment for cigarette addiction. Quick, safe relief from severe pain. Slowing the progress of Alzheimer's disease.

These are all treatments that a new company formed by three MCV professors is hoping to bring to market over the next decade using compounds and derivatives of two very controversial and politically charged drugs — marijuana and nicotine — in ground-breaking ways.

Despite the stigma attached to both, "the science that we're learning from marijuana [and nicotine] can be very valuable in developing drugs that will be useful in treating a variety of conditions," says Louis S. Harris, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Virginia Commonwealth University's Medical College of Virginia.

And, he adds, he and his colleagues are at "the cutting edge" of that research worldwide.

Harris, who chaired MCV's department of pharmacology and toxicology for two decades, and his fellow researchers Billy Martin, also a pharmacology professor, and Richard Glennon, a professor of medicinal chemistry, are partners in the newly formed CogniRx Inc., a company that hopes to capitalize on research advances and discoveries the three made during their years at MCV.

In March, the national Institute of Medicine, a federal advisory committee, released a report calling for more research into ways to use chemicals found in marijuana (known as cannabinoids) to treat pain. The report also exhorted scientists to develop a safer delivery method such as an inhaler that would be an alternative to smoking marijuana.

Enter Harris, Martin and Glennon, who have been researching marijuana for years. CogniRx is poised to become the first company out of the gate with an inhaler for pain relief.

Dr. William Regelson, an MCV medical professor and co-author of the top-selling book "The Melatonin Miracle," calls the invention "a revolution. ... You carry this thing around in your pocket like we do for people who suffer from asthma. It's tremendous. Somebody should invest in it. ... They're winners."

It's long been known that marijuana has great value for pain relief and it's scientifically proven to be less addictive than drugs like morphine, heroin or cocaine, Harris says. Marijuana eases nausea and vomiting in chemotherapy patients, stems weight loss in AIDS patients and helps glaucoma patients. Furthermore, Harris says, there's never been an overdose death attributed to marijuana, making it safer to work with than other narcotic pain-killers.

But Delta 9 THC, the active chemical in marijuana, is not particularly water soluble, meaning that it can't be injected in drug form like morphine. Until now, smoking marijuana has been the best method of receiving relief, but it's generally illegal and it exposes the smoker to dangerous carcinogens.

The only other method thus far available has been a pill, legally available for prescription, called Marinol. In pill form, however, THC takes a much longer time to be absorbed through the blood stream, and less of the chemical actually reaches the brain receptors.

Working with Peter Byron, a professor of pharmacy at MCV who has created a device similar to an asthma inhaler, Harris and his partners have developed a synthetic cannabinoid that can be absorbed into the blood vessels of the lungs, from which it travels directly to the heart and brain and the rest of the body.

Furthermore, it's not likely to be abused as a street drug because it would cost more by prescription than it would to buy marijuana on the street, Harris says. Besides, they're not even sure if their medical marijuana derivative would produce a "high." They would have to do clinical testing to discover that.

Other breakthroughs could come from the CogniRx professors' research into another controversial substance, nicotine — the addictive agent in cigarettes. For starters, there's some scientific data showing that nicotine can increase concentration skills and that the incidence of Alzheimer's disease is lower among cigarette smokers. Hitchhiking off that research, Harris, Martin and Glennon have been working on nicotine-based treatments for Alzheimer's.

But the product with the most wide-reaching possibilities is (hold your breath if you can, chain smokers) what could potentially be the best treatment for nicotine addiction yet invented.

Every drug theoretically has another drug, called an antagonist, that negates its effects. Harris, Martin and Glennon have found a drug that, in mouse and rat trials, eliminates some of the effects of nicotine. They won't name the compound, which they are in the process of patenting.

Mice trials are a long way from saying it would work in humans, Harris cautions, but theoretically, he says, "If we can block the effects of nicotine [from smoking] then people lighting up a cigarette are going to get no effect from the cigarette and therefore, they should stop smoking because they're not getting reinforcement anymore."

However, even if it's proven to work on humans, the treatment wouldn't be foolproof, Harris readily admits. It would only be as good as the will of the person who's quitting and their commitment to take the pills until they quit for good.

CogniRx is also working on antidepressant treatments with serotonin.

Harris is quick to point out that all of the possible applications for his and his colleagues' research are still years and years away from being available to the public by prescription or otherwise.

With the possible exception of the inhaler, which may get green-lighted earlier thanks to the national report, most of their applications may follow the national average for new drugs, which generally take eight years and as much as $150 million to go from lab to pharmaceutical production.

CogniRx is working on obtaining licenses from VCU for the professors' research work. The company will then raise the capital to market the ideas for sale to large pharmaceutical companies, which would, in turn, seek federal approval to manufacture and sell the drugs.

"Our aim is not to become a pharmaceutical company," says Harris. "We're trying to stimulate the development of these drugs because we think they have uses in patients with diseases and disorders. That's our objective, to get better treatments out

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