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The National Institutes of Health awarded a team of researchers at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences a $2.7 million grant to study synthetic marijuana.

UAMS announced the grant Tuesday, saying the funds will go toward the first comprehensive study of the dangers of using synthetic marijuana, man-made cannabinoids that emulate the effects of marijuana. Synthetic cannabinoids are psychoactive chemicals that are typically sprayed on plants and cut to look like marijuana. Commonly known as "Spice," "K2" and "bath salts," they are also sold as powders, tablets and capsules.

The five-year study will further a yearlong trial in 2011, which led to the development of a clinical test to measure the amount of synthetic compounds in a human body.

"Our goal is to provide the public and scientific community definitive information that these compounds are not an alternate form of marijuana that's safe," said Paul Prather, the principal investigator in the study and a professor at UAMS' department of pharmacology and toxicology. "This would give federal and state agencies grounds for further regulating these compounds."

The 2011 study -- which was led by Dr. Laura James, a professor in UAMS' department of pediatrics, director of the UAMS Translational Research Institute and section chief of clinical pharmacology and toxicology at Arkansas Children's Hospital -- prompted legislators in 2013 to add synthetic marijuana groups to the state's controlled-substances list, according to a news release.

This go-round, the seven-member interdisciplinary team is hoping to study the adverse effects of synthetic cannabinoids and confirm to the public and regulatory agencies that the compounds are not safe and legal alternatives to marijuana, Prather said in an interview.

"There are literally hundreds of these compounds," he said. "One of the major things is to come up with tests so that we're able to identify these compounds as they come out and ... we know and can tell people in the emergency room what they are on."

Typically, scientists research the compounds and identify which are toxic, leading policymakers to ban those certain compounds, Prather said. But "clandestine chemists" can just move onto the next compound and a new mystery, he said.

"We want to alert the public and, by understanding the toxicity of these compounds, perhaps we can come up with antidotes and treatments for people on these drugs coming into the emergency room," he said. "People who smoke K2 and Spice are basically playing Russian roulette. You're injecting this compound that has literally never been tested."

Part of the danger of synthetic cannabinoids, he said, is that the compounds depend on the concentration. Marijuana, a plant, has the main tetrahydrocannabinol compound evenly distributed throughout, but synthetic cannabinoids can vary from batch to batch, he said.

Synthetic marijuana users have experienced with more prevalence psychosis -- usually auditory hallucinations -- and seizures, he said. Heart attacks and even death -- rarer adverse effects -- have also been reported, he said. Users of marijuana do not experience those effects.

UAMS' Arkansas Poison & Drug Information Center has received 83 calls for synthetic cannabinoid exposures since 2015, according to a news release. Not all of the callers end up going to the emergency room, Prather said.

The study will take place in five tiers with each team member looking at a different piece of the puzzle.

It will start with James. When a patient with symptoms consistent with the use of synthetic cannabinoids goes to the emergency room at UAMS or Children's Hospital, James will monitor that patient, log the adverse effects and take blood and urine samples.

From there, Jeff Moran -- an assistant professor in UAMS' Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology and section director of Environmental Chemistry at the Arkansas Department of Health and the creator of the 2011 test for synthetic cannabinoids -- will identify the compounds in the urine and blood samples. Then, Anna Radominska-Pandya -- a professor in the UAMS College of Medicine Departments of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Medicine -- will study how the body metabolizes or deactivates the compounds.

"The knowledge gained from this work will help researchers predict whether certain populations are more likely to experience adverse effects from the drugs," she said.

The fourth stage is Prather's. He will take the information gathered in earlier stages and look at what the compound does in the brain compared with marijuana, he said.

From there, Bill Fantegrossi -- associate professor in the department of pharmacology and toxicology -- will take those compounds and study their effects on mice.

"Our animal models should help clarify the toxicity associated with these compounds," he said. "Right now when a synthetic cannabinoid user is admitted to the ER, we don't know what component of the drug really contributed to their symptoms."

The team also includes Susan Abdel-Rahman, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and Keith McCain, associate professor in UAMS' College of Pharmacy and a clinical toxicologist in the Poison and Drug Information Center. McCain will monitor calls to the center and will alert the investigators of any surges in the use of synthetic cannabinoids or new compounds.

The group will start out with emergency-room patients at UAMS and Children's, along with one in New York.

"The significance of this grant is that numerous experts are working across disciplines to produce findings that will directly improve human health and safety," James said.

Metro on 06/29/2016

Print Headline: UAMS team gets $2.7M to study synthetic 'pot'

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