In the midst of what the CDC calls an opioid epidemic in the United States, there is a quiet race among pharmaceutical companies to find opioid replacement therapies.
Alternatives from several companies leading the charge include the same centuries old ingredient, marijuana, or cannabis-based prescription drugs may be closer than ever before to hitting the U.S. market.
“My story started like many people,” Jeremy Lipka explained.
Jeremy needed surgery. After, he was prescribed a powerful pain killer.
“One thing leads to another,” he continued. “I found I really liked the feeling of them when I took them. Before I knew it, I was addicted. When I couldn't get pills and I was going through detox, the next best option was heroin.”
Jeremy is 4 years sober and counting. Today, he is a recovery coach supervisor at the non-profit Center for Human Development in Greenfield. There he helps others get through their addictions.
“Now my whole outlook on life is different with sobriety,” he said. “I really just want to help people whenever I can.”
Jeremy told Western Mass News had he not been prescribed opiates, his journey may have been different. A handful of companies in the U.S. are working to provide alternative opioid therapies with little or no addictive qualities, using plant based cannabis, or man-made forms of pot called cannabinoids.
“The cannabinoids are one of the active chemicals in marijuana,” Ruth Potee said.
Ruth is a family and addiction medicine physician at the Valley Medical Group in Greenfield.
“We think that cannabinoids can reduce some people's pain experience, or their nausea experience, and they can be used medically,” Dr. Potee added. “And I think more options available for people who struggle with chronic pain is a good idea.”
A drug called Marinol is one of only a few FDA approved cannabinoid. It’s used for nausea with chemotherapy, and weight loss from AIDS. But, doctors say it has its limitations in treating chronic pain.
A handful of U.S. based companies are working right now on more powerful cannabinoids. But research is no small task.
“Marijuana is not one drug,” Dr. Potee explained. “It’s one plant, but it comes in multiple strains with different levels of different cannabinoids in it. Which means you'd have to study hundreds of different strains, very complicated. You cannot use federal money to conduct a study on an illegal drug which is what marijuana is at the federal level.”
Several U.S. companies exploring prescription cannabinoids have reached the clinical phase. And recently, the FDA granted a company in Phoenix a "fast track" designation to facilitate development.
“I think more options available for people who struggle with chronic pain is a good idea,” Potee added. “Relying always on an opiate or a bottle of pills to solve your problem is not a good idea.”
With 64,000 people dying each year of opioid related overdoses, researchers say it could be one solid option in alleviating the opioid epidemic.
A company in the UK, called GW Pharmaceuticals, does have a plant-derived prescription cannabinoid. It’s not approved in the states, but is used in 30 other countries with success in treatment for chronic pain.
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