SOP Hosts Inaugural John W. Holaday Endowed Memorial Lecture in Medical Cannabis

Keynote speaker Dr. Raphael Mechoulam discusses his decades-long career as one of the world’s pre-eminent cannabis scientists and shares his hopes for the future of the field.

By Malissa Carroll
October 8, 2020

The University of Maryland School of Pharmacy hosted its inaugural John W. Holaday, PhD, Endowed Memorial Lectureship in Medical Cannabis on Oct. 5. Established with a gift from Curio Wellness – a medical cannabis brand and trusted health care partner based in Maryland – the lectureship was delivered as part of the MS in Medical Cannabis Science and Therapeutics program’s virtual fall symposium and honors the memory of John Holaday, PhD, a highly accomplished pharmaceutical executive, entrepreneur, and medical scholar who also served as chairman emeritus of Curio Wellness’s Scientific Advisory Board.

“Dr. Holaday was not only an accomplished professional and entrepreneur, but also a kind and caring person who served as a mentor to many young professionals,” said Natalie D. Eddington, PhD, FCP, FAAPS, dean and professor of the School of Pharmacy, in her opening remarks. “We are grateful to Curio Wellness for their recognition of Dr. Holaday and his many contributions to the life sciences.”

Serving as the keynote speaker for the lecture was Raphael Mechoulam, PhD, the Lionel Jacobson Professor of Medicinal Chemistry at Hebrew University in Israel and one of the world’s pre-eminent cannabis scientists. Mechoulam and his research team were the first to isolate and identify several major plant cannabinoids, including D9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the major psychoactive compound in the cannabis plant.

“It is a thrill and honor to have Dr. Mechoulam deliver the keynote address for our symposium and serve as the inaugural speaker for the John W. Holaday Endowed Memorial Lecture,” says Leah Sera, PharmD, associate professor in the Department of Pharmacy Practice and Science (PPS) and director of the MS in Medical Cannabis Science and Therapeutics program at the School of Pharmacy. “Both new students and those who have been in the medical cannabis field for years have been impacted by his research in cannabinoid science. It is a gift to have him speak to our students about the history and the future of this exciting field.”

Mechoulam’s lecture titled, “The Cannabinoids: Looking Back and Ahead,” explored the history of cannabis use, the different phases of cannabinoid research, and the numerous medical conditions that cannabinoid-based medications can be used to treat. According to Mechoulam, most scientists were not interested in pursuing cannabis research when he began his career. However, he noted that this has changed in recent years. Prestigious, peer-reviewed scientific journals such as Nature Reviews now regularly incorporate articles spotlighting cannabis research in their volumes and leading health and professional associations have started to take notice of the positive impact that cannabis can have when used to treat certain medical conditions.

Mechoulam noted that most cannabis research currently focuses on cannabidiol (CBD) and THC. While CBD and THC are closely related chemically, their biological activity is completely different. THC possesses psychoactive properties not found in CBD, causing a number of adverse events that have led many researchers to discount it as a potential treatment. However, CBD has been extensively studied to help treat a number of conditions, including epilepsy, chronic graft-versus-host disease, schizophrenia, diabetes, and type 1 diabetes.

In fact, Mechoulam and his research team conducted some of the earliest research on CBD and its application to epilepsy, publishing their findings in 1980.

“We found that we had a new drug that could be used; it was not toxic and there were no side effects,” said Mechoulam. “But, nothing happened for 35 years, until parents with children who had been diagnosed with epilepsy started to look for new treatments. It was these parents who found that CBD was quite good at suppressing their child’s epilepsy.”

He added, “As a result, CBD began to be widely used, and was even approved for a major clinical trial. The results of the clinical trial mirrored what we saw in our earlier study, and CBD was approved for use in children with epilepsy. My only question is: why did we have to wait so long?”

Mechoulam is also credited with isolating and characterizing the first known endogenous cannabinoids: anandamide and 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG). Endogenous cannabinoids refers to cannabinoids that are produced by the human body. This discovery came after another research team that Mechoulam had closely followed identified receptors in different areas of the brain that were relevant to cannabinoid activity.

“We believed that, if there was a receptor, then the body must produce compounds that activate or block that receptor,” said Mechoulam. “We started a program looking for endogenous cannabinoids, and in the early 1990s, we found a compound that – although it was completely different from THC – it appeared to exhibit essentially the same activity. A few years later, we identified a second compound.”

The article published by Mechoulam and his research team about this discovery has been cited in other research more than 6,000 times to-date.

The discovery of cannabinoid receptors in the brain and the endogenous cannabinoids that act on those receptors led to researchers uncovering an entirely new physiological system in the body: the endocannabinoid system. This system is now known to affect many other systems and conditions in the body, including anxiety, appetite, blood pressure, the digestive system, the immune system, mood, pain, and stress.

Mechoulam’s current research focuses on the numerous anandamide-like compounds in the mammalian body, particularly those involved in basic biological reactions such as bone formation, vasodilation, head trauma, and addiction. He and his research team have developed several novel cannabinoids and anandamide-like compounds that are currently being developed as drugs by pharmaceutical companies. He commended the School of Pharmacy for establishing its MS in Medical Cannabis Science and Therapeutics program, noting that such programs will be crucial to ensuring the work to which he and his colleagues have dedicated their careers continues.

“High quality academic programs such as the School of Pharmacy’s MS in Medical Cannabis Science and Therapeutics program are sorely needed to help further the field of cannabis research,” said Mechoulam. “I hope my remarks today have inspired your students to continue down the path of education, discovery, and advocacy in this field.”