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McLean Hospital researcher Staci Gruber, PhD, will use funding provided by Harvard University and MIT alumnus Charles R. Broderick to further her studies into different types of cannabis-based products. Last year, Broderick donated $9 million, split evenly between Harvard Medical School and MIT. The funding will support investigations into a range of issues related to cannabis, including its effects on the human brain, its use in treating medical and psychiatric conditions, and how it might be regulated.
Broderick’s gift is the largest ever for cannabis research. Gruber is one of four awardees at Harvard Medical School.
The director of the Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery (MIND) program, Gruber will use the grant money to help identify differences between a whole-plant, full-spectrum cannabis product and a product made from a single extracted compound. Full-spectrum products contain a variety of cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant, including cannabidiol (CBD) and delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and other naturally occurring compounds. In contrast, single extracted products typically feature only one cannabinoid and no other compounds from the plant.
In recent years, CBD products have become increasingly popular for their claims of helping with anxiety, pain, and other conditions. Although a variety of both full-spectrum and single extracted products are available in the marketplace, no research to date has directly compared full-spectrum products to single extracted products in terms of safety or efficacy.
“Everybody who is interested in using any cannabis-based product wants to understand potential differences between single extracted compounds and whole-plant, full-spectrum compounds,” Gruber said. “The grant money will help allow us to identify differences in these two different approaches, which are very common across the nation.”
For her research, Gruber will compare a custom-formulated, whole-plant, full-spectrum product used for patients with anxiety with the same product with everything stripped out except cannabidiol. The products will also be compared to a placebo.
“A single extracted, purified form of cannabidiol—a primary, nonintoxicating constituent of the plant—might be different from a full-spectrum product that contains high levels of cannabidiol and also has other cannabinoids and other compounds,” Gruber explained. “Our research could clarify the potential for synergistic effects that many believe occur when using full-spectrum products versus single extracted compounds.”
Gruber believes this work is necessary given recent changes in marijuana laws, widespread availability of cannabis-based products, and changing attitudes about the drug.
“Increasing numbers of people in the world are exploring the use of cannabis and cannabinoid-based medications or products for many different reasons, but at the moment, we don’t have a ton of data about the impact of individual cannabinoids compared to cannabinoids in the presence of other compounds,” Gruber stated. “This is important for identifying which approach yields increased efficacy and has implications for harm reduction. We don’t want to expose individuals to compounds they don’t need to be exposed to if we can get the same ‘bang for the buck’ with a single compound. Conversely, some have reported increased efficacy at lower doses with full-spectrum compared to single-compound products.”
Gruber believes that data from investigations like this will provide valuable information for clinicians, consumers, and patients, as well as policymakers and regulators. “Cannabis is a fairly polarizing subject, with people often very much in favor or very much against,” she said. “This underscores the importance of letting science guide the decision-making. Policy often outpaces science. In this case, we want science to outpace policy.”
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