Cannabis as Medicine: Talking Shop with Dr. Charles Pollack of Thomas Jefferson University

After learning the benefits CBD has on those suffering from Dravet’s Syndrome, Australian millionaire Barry Lambert invested over $20 million into cannabis research at the University of Sydney. Continuing his donations to fund the research, Lambert donated $3 million more to Thomas Jefferson University (TJU) in the United States. This research allowed TJU to begin cannabis focused research. The future of cannabis research in the United States seems to finally be opening up. We had the chance to talk to Dr. Charles Pollack, the doctor leading TJU’s cannabis research program.

Maxwell Davis, GreenSea DistributionThank you for speaking with me, Dr. Pollack, I know you are incredibly busy. For those who may be unfamiliar with you or your work, would you briefly introduce yourself?

Dr. Charles Pollack, Thomas Jefferson University: I am a Professor of Emergency Medicine who also has leadership roles in education and research at our university. I am Associate Provost of Thomas Jefferson University. I also direct an innovative think-tank “education R&D” enterprise here called: The Institute of Emerging Health Professions, which identifies healthcare and healthcare-related education, training, and certifications that will be needed over the next 7-10 years as healthcare evolves, but the training for which doesn’t yet exist. When we identify such “emerging gaps,” we evaluate them for the feasibility of curriculum development and deployment, and if everything aligns, we try to be first to market offering those curricula.

Maxwell Davis: That’s very interesting. Obviously, you are quite the established medical professional, thank you for your introduction. Now, I’m assuming many of our readers will be wondering what a doctor is doing speaking with a cannabis writer. For those unaware, would you explain Thomas Jefferson University’s foray into cannabis research?

Dr. Charles Pollack: Well, there’s probably no better example of an “emerging health issue” than the potential use of cannabinoids as medicinal therapy.  We first entered this space thinking it required more education—for both clinicians and consumers—but soon realized the paucity of research supporting the use of cannabinoids in most of the illnesses for which it is touted.

Maxwell Davis: So, we don’t have enough positive cannabis research? That’s what inspired Thomas Jefferson University’s curiosity into cannabis research?

Dr. Charles Pollack: We are a health sciences university—with basic science, clinical science, and population health researchers. This is what we do; we see an area in which clinicians are working with patients without “the net” of underlying evidence, and we feel a compulsion to try to fill that gap. We want to ease patient suffering; we want to educate physicians, nurses, and pharmacists better.

Maxwell Davis: That makes total sense. Now, how did that inspiration transform into actuality? It seems unusual for a school in the U.S. to start a medicinal cannabis department.

Dr. Charles Pollack: We launched a center with three components: education (clinicians and laypeople), research (basic and clinical science, evaluating all sources of cannabinoid therapy: marijuana-derived, hemp-derived, and synthetics), and social impact (studying best practices, social and business equity issues). As such, we are the only comprehensive academic resource for medicinal cannabinoid therapy.

Maxwell Davis: That’s fascinating. I can’t wait to start seeing what your research finds. What role do you personally play in the Center for Medical Cannabis Education & Research(CMCER)?

Dr. Charles Pollack: We formed CMCER on May 31, 2016. Just a few months later, we renamed it: The Lambert Center for the Study of Medicinal Cannabis and Hemp at Thomas Jefferson University, in honor of a generous philanthropic gift from Barry and Joy Lambert in Australia. They also fund the Lambert Initiative for Cannabinoid Therapeutics at the University of Sydney. The Lamberts’ generosity and passion inspire us every day.

I have an extensive background in both education and conventional “drug development” research. We are applying best principles of both to deepening the understanding of potential uses of cannabinoids as therapy. For now, I serve as Director of The Lambert Center, building our library of educational programs and prioritizing and seeking funding for specific research projects. I am supported in these efforts by an illustrious, international academic steering committee of experts in cannabinoid science and therapy.

Maxwell Davis: I am extremely happy to see such large investments being given to those studying cannabis as a medicine. The entire industry has a debt to pay to Barry and Joy Lambert. Moving forward a little bit, has the Lambert Center actively begun research projects? If so, can you tell me more about the focus of the Center’s research? Any findings?

Dr. Charles Pollack: We have already launched some observational studies and a workforce development program for the medical cannabis industry. We have a number of clinical studies that, pending Federal regulatory approval, we hope to have running at Jefferson and/or other institutions (and perhaps in other countries) by year’s end.

Maxwell Davis: Oh, so you may expand internationally? I can’t wait to start reading your studies as they are released. Now, it is my understanding that using cannabis as a potential medicine is a very complex issue. How do you decide where to begin researching?

Dr. Charles Pollack: Our Steering Committee is developing a prioritized research agenda, by disease state, of the most important questions that need to be answered vis-à-vis cannabinoids as therapy. We’ll follow those priorities in seeking funding and specific investigators and collaborators to do the studies. It’s a vast landscape, and while some issues are particularly popular, such as epilepsy and chronic pain syndromes, there are lots of areas ripe for study.

Maxwell Davis: Do you currently have working theories that you’re hoping to validate through your research?

Dr. Charles Pollack: No, our position is that there is this broad set of potential therapeutic agents here that have been used for centuries but still lack, in most cases, any sort of rigorous scientific underpinning to guide that use going forward. We have no agenda other than to answer the logical questions clinicians are accustomed to having answered as they use a “medication.” While we don’t anticipate a formal, FDA-driven drug development process for most cannabinoids—they’re already too widely available to do that—we do want to improve the underlying science so that clinicians can recommend them with more confidence and patients can take them with more realistic expectations.

Maxwell Davis: I’d imagine that’s great news for current patients of medical cannabis programs. As you said earlier, Australian philanthropist Barry Lambert and his wife Joy recently donated over $3 million to TJU to fund cannabis research. What about TJU do you think stood out to Mr. and Mrs. Lambert?

Dr. Charles Pollack: I think our dedication to a rigorous approach to education and research, our enthusiasm and willingness to move quickly, and our willingness to push forward with clinical studies that complement the basic science work being done in Sydney, all appealed to the Lamberts.

Maxwell Davis: So, it would seem you are the logical choice. Are there any unique protocols the university has to follow in order to research cannabis?

Dr. Charles Pollack: No, we have no special access. But we are evaluating other sources of cannabinoids, such as hemp and synthetics, both to diversify our research portfolio and to move as expeditiously as we can to answer critical issues about efficacy and safety.

Maxwell Davis: I think that’s certainly a good idea. Is there any concern on behalf of the school regarding the handling of cannabis? Issues with banking for the department or fear of federal repercussions?

Dr. Charles Pollack: For handling, no, as we follow DEA regulations scrupulously.  For banking, we are careful to accept funding and gifts only from individuals or entities who are giving from a source that is separate from revenues resulting from sales of marijuana.

Maxwell Davis: Gotcha. As we both know, cannabis has hardly been studied in the United States given the plant’s federal status. Most of the academic research I have read is coming from Israel. Would you consider yourself at the forefront of a new industry?

Dr. Charles Pollack: That is certainly our goal. That being said, we are collaborating with colleagues in Israel, Australia, Spain, Canada, and other countries. Again, our goal is to answer pressing questions efficiently. No one benefits from anyone—including us—trying to re-invent wheels.

Maxwell Davis: Of course. Do you feel as though research like yours will help change the public perspective of cannabis?

Dr. Charles Pollack: Our hope is to lend a measure of scientific rigor and integrity to this space. That certainly has the potential to inform, and perhaps change, currently held perceptions of all kinds.

Maxwell Davis: To wrap up, I’d like to know your personal opinions on cannabis as a whole. Does it have real medicinal applications? Should it be legalized? What are the points that stand out to you?

Dr. Charles Pollack: At The Lambert Center for the Study of Medicinal Cannabis and Hemp at Thomas Jefferson University, we do not have an agenda about legalization. Our goal is to improve the scientific underpinnings of cannabinoids as therapeutic agents. I think it’s clear that in some clinical syndromes, cannabinoids are helpful. We want to demonstrate (or in some cases, perhaps even refute) more conclusively, using well-designed, rigorous, and adequately powered studies, what their optimal role/s might be.

Maxwell Davis: That makes sense. Well, I must say, I commend you for your efforts and appreciate your willingness to speak with me, Dr. Pollack. Keep up the great work. You have a friend in the cannabis industry.

Dr. Charles Pollack: Thanks for the opportunity. I hope you readers will check our website often as over the next few months we launch a number of exciting and university-accredited educational programs, and for those with both a passion for research in this space and the resources to support that research, we welcome conversations about general or disease-targeted philanthropy.  Donations to The Lambert Center are tax-deductible.

Maxwell Davis: Thanks again, Dr. Pollack. I know I’ll be checking the website! I appreciate having you on our Talking Shop series.

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