Raphael Mechoulam is widely considered to be one of the most important researchers when it comes to cannabis and cannabinoid science. Mechoulam, an organic chemist and professor of medicinal chemistry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, was part of the team that isolated the structure of, and synthesized, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the most commonly occurring cannabinoid, in the early 1960s. This discovery paved the way for the now-booming field of cannabis research.
Last week, Mechoulam spoke during a fireside chat at the 2021 Virtual Cannabis Research Conference, hosted by the Institute of Cannabis Research at Colorado State University, Pueblo, during which he reflected on the future of the field he helped to found.
Chad Kinney, the director of the Institute, asked Mechoulam what he thinks will be the “promising” research that advances to clinical stages.
For decades, Mechoulam started, cannabis has been “regarded as something that one should avoid or should not deal with.”
“Well, it has turned out that as the endocannabinoid system is a very central neurotransmitter system in our body, it is involved in a huge, huge number of disease states,” Mechoulam continued, referencing research conducted by United States investigators that found that the endocannabinoid system is implicated in the vast majority of medical issues.
Just 30 years ago, no one knew about the endocannabinoid system, or the system of receptors throughout the body that exist to interact with cannabinoids, endogenous or otherwise. The first receptor was discovered by Allyn Howlett, now a professor at Wake Forest University, back in the 1980s. In the early 1990s, Mechoulam’s team was the first to discover and isolate an endogenous cannabinoid, a naturally occurring cannabinoid in the body, which they called anandamide. Together, Howlett’s discovery and Mechoulam’s, painted a picture: the receptors of the endocannabinoid system are like mailboxes, and the cannabinoids are like mail.
“It is a very important system,” Mechoulam said. “It is a kind of a protector, if you wish, in many cases.”
Over the decades, researchers have discovered much more about receptors and more endogenous cannabinoids. As Mechoulam put it, there are “quite a lot of other compounds which are also present there and act in very particular cases.” Mechoulam pointed to one compound that helps with bone formation, and a “few others we found that are closely related to addiction.” On the addiction note, Mechoulam said that he’s currently working on nicotine addiction, and that his team has found two endogenous compounds that are similar to each other and that “work against” it.
“Here we have a new system which basically tries to help us to prevent one disease or another. And I believe that we shall be seeing a lot of these compounds acting, and maybe some of them will be used as they are, or in a slightly modified form, as future drugs,” Mechoulam said.
Mechoulam also touched on the need for “collaboration” in cannabis research, preferably with scientists who have expertise in pharmacology and biochemistry, though it’s been tougher during the pandemic.
“Each one of us can support, or actually show negatively, some idea,” he said.