Researchers from the Baylor College of Medicine, within the Texas Medical Center, published a study this week on the therapeutic potential of CBD for dogs experiencing pain from arthritis. The condition frequently affects canines, and there are few treatment options.
The research, which was published in the peer-reviewed journal Pain, started with human and murine (rodent) cells, and with mouse models. It was through this early research, Matthew Halpert, lead researcher on the study, told Cannabis Wire, that CBD first showed great promise in reducing the production of the types of inflammatory molecules and immune cells linked to arthritis, and the subsequent pain.
Researchers used CBD from Medterra, a company that produces hemp-derived CBD products, and with which Halpert is affiliated. (Cannabis Wire recently published a story about the rising involvement of the cannabis industry in research, and we asked the lead researcher about this balance, which he answers below.)
Next, researchers identified 20 dogs at Sunset Animal Hospital in Houston that would participate in the study. Dogs, which included larger breeds like Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds, were either given a high CBD dose (50 mg), a liposomal CBD dose of 20 mg (which means that liposomal sacs are used in an effort to increase absorption rates), or a placebo.
Researchers found that the owners of nine out of the ten dogs who received CBD reported some kind of improvement. In some cases, it was dramatic, Halpert said.
The Food and Drug Administration is currently crafting rules for CBD products, and has opened their public comment window “indefinitely,” which Cannabis Wire covered. The FDA also regulates drugs for animals.
It should be noted that CBD products have spiked in popularity among pet owners in recent years. But in November, the FDA emphasized its “concerns” regarding these products in a pre-Thanksgiving update regarding CBD product regulation.
“Concerns regarding CBD products with unproven medical claims and of unknown quality equally apply to CBD products marketed for animals,” the FDA noted, urging pet owners to talk to their vets about “appropriate treatment options for their pets.”
Still, Medterra CEO Jay Hartenbach told Cannabis Wire that “these results have already been shared with the FDA. Knowing that this data was going to go to the FDA, it was very important for us to study both the efficacy and side effect profile of the CBD treatment. We know the FDA is very interested in gathering as much safety data as possible with ingestible CBD.”
Cannabis Wire had a conversation with Halpert to better understand this research, what the implications are for dogs—and possibly humans—when it comes to CBD, and what’s next for his research.
(This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: What inspired this research on CBD and arthritis in dogs?
Matthew Halpert, lead researcher: This was kind of a collaborative effort between myself, at Baylor, and Medterra. And to give some background as to why I’m even working with Medterra: I will tell you that before I joined them, started helping them, a couple other CBD companies actually had approached me and talked about working with me. In reality, you learn very quickly that a lot of what’s out there is just trying to jump off a fad and make a quick buck. They don’t care about the science or they don’t care about what is reality. And so I did not do anything with them. And then when I was talking to the higher ups at Medterra, it became very apparent very quickly that they were very interested in the science, what the science had to say: How can we be not only scientifically accurate, but actually advance the science, etc?
So this fit my wheelhouse. I’m just a pure academic researcher, an immunologist by trade. So that led to numerous different model systems experimenting going on in the lab where we were really looking at science. It was pretty evident from us and from other labs that CBD has this reasonably genuine anti-inflammatory role and can reduce a lot of the signaling molecules commonly associated with inflammation. And so a lot of what we were seeing in the lab and in, let’s call them preliminary studies, we were seeing a reduction in inflammatory signals commonly associated with several actual diseases such as arthritis. So, you know, obviously there’d be a lot of interest and movement to say, well, what about the people? Well, you can’t just experiment on people. We can do that, but you’re talking about clinical trials, FDA, IRB, a pretty big undertaking.
And I happened to have a perfect combination of events, where I happen to have a veterinary colleague at Sunset Animal Hospital, which we’ve worked with before, who had already expressed interest in CBD, and if it might be effective for dogs. And right around this time, Medterra was entertaining a couple of large pet companies, brands. These were people in the pet space who were very interested in what the science had to say about CBD in the pet space. So, we started putting things together, and Medterra said, “If you’ve already got the connections, can we go ahead and actually fund an actual study in dogs to see if there’s any benefit here?”
So I worked with the vets, and we put a plan together. Here’s what they’re comfortable with doing, here’s what it would cost, and next thing you know, we’ve got a small canine placebo, double blind, clinical trial sort of going. So the study came about as a result of this desire on all sides to put the science first, and see what’s actually here, and if there’s any weight to these claims.
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: What were the biggest surprises that emerged from this research?
Matthew Halpert, lead researcher: I honestly was surprised at how well it worked, if I’m being just blunt. It’s one thing to see something in a petri dish in a lab. I mean, it’s not invalid, but it’s just one small step at the beginning of a process. To suddenly go into a study, though, like this, where I have no control? I took off the labels and replaced them with “A,” “B,” C,” or D.” And I gave them to the vet. And I said, “you don’t know what each bottle has. The owners don’t know. And we’re going to do this pretty extensive scoring system from the vet, from the owners. We’re going to look at the blood. We’re going to look at things like liver, kidney function.” The reality is: I have no control here. I don’t know what to expect. And I warned Medterra, “just so you know, it’s a one-month study. I don’t know what the data are going to be.”
These dogs have pre-diagnosed, chronic arthritis. This is an ongoing condition that has drastically affected their lives, their ability to move, and jump, and things like that. So, I said, “I’m not sure if we’re going to see anything in a month.” And then within one month, which clinically speaking, is very, very short, almost every dog in the appropriate CBD groups saw some sort of benefit. It wasn’t a minor benefit. Some of these scores, symptoms were reduced by as much as 50 percent in just one month. That to me, being in the science space, things don’t usually jump that large that quickly. And then the dogs in the placebo group, and the low-dose CBD group, they basically saw nothing. No improvement.
And they didn’t know they were in the placebo group, right? This tells me, by and large, they weren’t trying to just give fake answers. They gave genuine answers and they said, “no, whatever you gave us did not help my dog.” And then you’ve got 10 dogs in the “better groups” and they’re all like, “yeah, this is fabulous.” I got a bunch of notes that I can’t publish because they’re not scientific. “Oh, my God, I’m so happy. Oh, is the first time he jumped up on the couch in two years.” I’m just like—I’m a little bit floored. Oh my gosh. I mean, it’s just that that actually surprised me more than anything, that it had actually worked that well that quickly.
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: Is there any follow-up CBD research planned? The research said that “This study supports the safety and therapeutic potential of hemp-derived CBD for relieving arthritic pain and suggests follow-up investigation.”
Matthew Halpert, lead researcher: The short answer is yes, this is not the end. I can confidently say that. Without [Medterra CEO] Jay Hartenbach on the line, I don’t know what he or Medterra would permit me to say at this time. All I can tell you is that we’ve talked to the veterinary group about expanding the dog studies, taking it to the next step. That is an active thing, in process, but I don’t want to pre-scoop ourselves on that.
(Cannabis Wire reached out to Hartenbach to ask the same question, and Hartenbach said: “We are now studying the combination of CBD with other ingredients to improve efficacy and the ability of CBD to penetrate the skin via different delivery methods. All of this work will continue to be completed with Dr. Halpert’s team at the Baylor College of Medicine. This has been a great partnership for us and we look forward to continuing it in the years to come.”)
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: How would you characterize interest from the private sector on the results of this research?
Matthew Halpert, lead researcher: In the vet and human space, when it comes to arthritis and osteoarthritis, there’s almost no treatment for it, period. It’s just a real tough disease. We don’t exactly know the root cause of this, it’s fairly debilitating, it leads to all kinds of joint issues.
Yes, there’s interest. Of course, there’s the concern, the wariness if there’s THC in it, or if people don’t understand the difference.
A lot of people in the private space also don’t know what they’re talking about. So they think that it makes no sense or has no backing. So that unfortunately slows a lot of the process down, because you end up with a lot of poorly regulated, inaccurate claims and products out there which sort of muddy the waters. As slow as the FDA is, as much as I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall in working with them, there’s a reason they exist. If they’re not going to regulate this product space, we’re unfortunately going to have to deal with a lot of muck out there until things get cleaned up.
So, there’s interest, but I feel when I talk to people, people don’t know where to go or who to trust.
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: Cannabis Wire recently published a piece about cannabis industry involvement in and funding of research. Can you characterize the conversations you had internally and externally about the involvement of Medterra in this research? What percentage of this research did Medterra fund?
Matthew Halpert, lead researcher: This was Medterra’s pet CBD product. From Baylor’s perspective, I’m not allowed to “rah rah” and endorse a product from any company.
Medterra provided the product and Medterra provided 90% of the funding that went into this study. A little was covered by some other stuff at Baylor.
I was very clear with Medterra up front: they don’t control this. Neither of us. They don’t control the data. The rule is the data are what they are. You may like them. You may not. But we’re not going to get this position where we’re going to hide data or we’re going to manipulate data, risk our integrity and whatever. And Baylor is on top of that, because Baylor doesn’t want to get stuck in some quagmire where they look like they can be bought off.
I would say this shouldn’t be solely Medterra. I do think the cannabis community should fund actual, real research and let the data drive the direction.
And if real research out of real institutions published in real journals vetted by real scientists who are not being bought off, says, “hey, look, repeated studies have shown that cannabis could be a very effective quick treatment for ulcerative colitis or osteoarthritis,” then great. I think that is something we need to be pursuing.
If you don’t have studies out there, and I’m talking all the way through human level clinical trials, it ends up fading into the background and just becomes another supplement in the supplement aisle at CVS. So the question is: what does the cannabis industry really hope for here? Do they want this to just become a kind of background thing that people are like, eh, it’s just kind of anecdotal? Or, do they want it to be: this has now been tested on 10,000 different people and clearly it has cured cancer, or whatever it is. I do think that’s the direction the industry should go.
Alyson Martin, Cannabis Wire: What does it mean that you’re a “paid scientific adviser” for Medterra? Do you have to balance any priorities?
Matthew Halpert, lead researcher: I’ve been working with Medterra now for about a year and a half. And so we got working on some smaller experiments at Baylor, and this led to a sponsored research agreement with Baylor. So Medterra and Baylor sort of tied the knot. And Medterra said, look, we’re going to send you product and money and we want you to do the research and just give us the data. And we want that because we want to lead science.
Medterra asked if I could be one of their advisors to help make sure they’re not doing stuff that’s scientifically stupid. And I checked with Baylor and they said it’s fine, you can do that. It’s just a requirement that I disclose that.