Are Cannabinoids Useful in Treating Pain from Nerve Damage?

Combating misconceptions and investigating the benefits of cannabis in treating disease.
Dr. Sara Jane Ward, an instructor in the Cannabis Medicine Graduate Certificate program in Jefferson’s Institute of Emerging Health Professions. Photo by ©Thomas Jefferson University Photography Services.

Cannabis medicalization and legalization is having a profound effect on the world. Cannabis – in the form of marijuana – has traditionally been viewed by healthcare professionals only as a drug of abuse. In the last few decades, researchers have learned much about the endocannabinoid system and the physiological impacts of cannabinoids, the chemicals found in cannabis. The potential for new pharmacotherapies acting on the cannabinoid system offer hope for many patients with unmet clinical needs.

Researchers like Sara Jane Ward, PhD, an instructor in the Cannabis Medicine Graduate Certificate program in Jefferson’s Institute of Emerging Health Professions, and assistant professor in the Center for Substance Abuse Research at Temple University, are working to elucidate the therapeutic potential of non-psychoactive cannabinoids. This includes studies investigating the efficacy of cannabidiol (CBD) for the treatment of neuropathic pain, which can occur when nerves are damaged, by injury or drugs, like chemotherapy. Other projects include looking at whether CBD and synthetic cannabinoids might help patients with a range of nervous system disorders including stroke, traumatic brain injury and addiction. We speak with Dr. Ward to learn more about her research.

Q: How long have you been at Jefferson? What led you here?

A: I have been collaborating with Jefferson toward its efforts in medical cannabis education since 2017 and have been instructing in the Medical Cannabis Graduate Certificate program since 2018. I have been a cannabinoid pharmacologist at Temple University since 2006 and my partnership with Jefferson has expanded my opportunities to teach on this important topic.

Q: Tell us a bit about your field or area of research. What’s one question you’re exploring?

A: Currently my research focuses on understanding the efficacy and safety of cannabinoid-based therapeutics using animal models of pain and injury to the nervous system. One specific question we are exploring is what is the safest and most effective cannabinoid-based treatment regimen for neuropathic pain that results from chemotherapy treatment? Even though people have reported using cannabis for centuries to treat pain, we still have seen relatively few clinical studies to determine how well it works. Moreover, because cannabis is a plant containing hundreds of chemicals that can vary in concentrations and can be used in a variety of ways, narrowing in on how much of which chemical should be used and the best ways to administer it remain totally open questions. Add to this the fact that pain is multifaceted and can be caused by a wide range of injuries and diseases, and the problem becomes even more challenging. By using distinct animal models of certain types of pain, we can more systematically study specific chemicals found in the plant in a dose-dependent, more controlled way to start to tease apart these questions.

Cannabinoid scientists are eager to talk about their work, unique perspectives and experiences in the field.” – Dr. Sara Ward.

Q: What first sparked your interest in your area of research/your research question?

A: I actually began research in the area of cannabinoid pharmacology as a substance abuse researcher interested in exploring novel targets for the treatment of cocaine addiction. Because of this background, I became aware of the use of the psychoactive cannabinoid tetrahydrocannabinol or what’s more commonly known as THC, as a pharmacotherapy. Through attending international cannabinoid conferences I learned about the vast array of cannabinoid drugs, targets, and clinical indications. Also at this time, I had a close friend diagnosed with stage-4 breast cancer who began to suffer from chemotherapy-induced neuropathic pain. Several pieces of the puzzle started to come together for me, and I began exploring a specific cannabinoid, cannabidiol (CBD), for its potential to prevent or treat chemotherapy-induced neuropathic pain. CBD binds to different targets in the body than THC and does not carry the same risk for abuse, and other side effects.

Q: What’s the fire in your belly that drives your passion for your research?

A: What drives me as a scientist is to work toward combatting common misconceptions in the public (and health care) arena about drug abuse and cannabis by contributing to our understanding of substance use disorders and our ability to treat them and pain disorders safely.

Q: What’s a cool or little known or unique fact about your work?

A: My laboratory was the first to demonstrate in a preclinical model that CBD can prevent the development of neuropathic pain. This has eventually led to the initiation of two clinical trials for the treatment of chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN) with CBD, one at Lankanau Hospital and one at Columbia University. Both trials are continuing to recruit patients and data are coming in from patients completing the trials as well. Following the completion of the trials, we will know whether these specific dosing regimens of CBD are safe and effective for treating CIPN in patients.

Q: If you had any words of advice for an aspiring researcher or student in this field, what would they be?

A: Explore as many avenues as you can to gain information on cannabinoid research, including reaching out to cannabinoid researchers in your geographical area and attending as many virtual and in person symposia as you can. This is a burgeoning area with a somewhat overwhelming amount of information coming out of several different places. Cannabinoid scientists are eager to talk about their work, unique perspectives and experiences in the field.

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