The cannabis company Parallel, which aims to improve quality of life with its products, has launched a 10-year collaboration with the University of Pittsburgh, known as Pitt, to investigate the potential of medical marijuana for treating people with sickle cell disease (SCD).
Pitt’s research program will receive an initial $3 million, provided by Parallel via its global retail brand Goodblend. This investment will be available as unrestricted grants, and will fund research into the efficacy and safety of medical cannabis as a treatment for certain SCD symptoms, such as chronic pain.
Subsequent research will address the potential of medical marijuana in anxiety and other chronic illnesses.
“Our partnership with the University of Pittsburgh aligns with our mission of promoting well-being for all and to provide access and treatment options to communities who need it most,” William “Beau” Wrigley, Jr., CEO of Parallel, said in a press release.
Chronic pain, as well as episodes of acute pain caused by a vaso-occlusive crisis — a frequent reason for emergency department visits for SCD patients — are common complications of the red blood cell disorder. Opioids are currently used for pain management for these patients, but these drugs often fail to completely control such pain; they also are highly addictive.
Cannabis, which is available for medicinal use in 33 U.S. states, has shown potential as a non-addictive means to alleviate chronic pain. In a small Phase 1/2 clinical trial (NCT01771731), an inhaled formulation of cannabis lowered pain levels and improved mood in people with SCD, though the findings did not reach statistical significance due to the small patient sample.
Under the new collaboration, Pittsburgh investigators will start their research program with a clinical trial that will study Parallel’s cutting-edge cannabis formulations in SCD patients. The goal is to determine whether these cannabis formulations ease symptoms of SCD, including the chronic pain that burdens about 15% of patients.
“Patients with sickle cell disease and chronic pain have no real alternative to chronic opioid therapy, which has severe limitations and disadvantages,” said Laura DeCastro, MD, the program’s lead investigator and associate professor of medicine and director of clinical translational research at Pitt’s Sickle Cell Disease Research Center of Excellence.
“We are proud to have this opportunity to study potential cannabis treatments for these patients who live in constant debilitating pain,” added DeCastro, who is also the director of benign hematology for the Institute for Transfusion Medicine and UPMC Hillman Cancer Center.
The University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine is one of the eight academic research universities in Pennsylvania allowed to conduct clinical research for medical marijuana.
“Parallel is honored to be the medical cannabis partner of the University of Pittsburgh. Their position as one of the leading global medical research institutions will assist us in advancing our medical understanding of the benefits of cannabinoids [pharmacologically active compounds of cannabis] in treating a wide spectrum of diseases and conditions,” Wrigley said.
“Parallel is pioneering the development of cannabis therapies through strategic partnerships with leading institutions such as the University of Pittsburgh,” he added. “We believe that research is essential to optimize the targeted benefits of cannabinoids as they hold great promise to replace pharmaceuticals for numerous conditions.”
With Pennsylvania’s approval of this medical cannabis research partnership, Parallel also was granted a license to grow and process cannabis and open up to six retail locations across the state.