Despite the controversy surrounding the legality of the cannabis plant, one drug company hopes to soon use medical marijuana to protect NFL players from repetitive concussions, which are shown to cause symptoms on par with those seen in patients with Alzheimer’s or other neurodegenerative diseases.
In order to even commercialize such a miracle cure, companies would first have to obtain an exclusive license from the federal government for a medical marijuana patent, currently held by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
But in 2013, Dean Petkanas, CEO of the New York-based company KannaLife Sciences, got his hands on the license in order to bring a marijuana-based neuroprotective drug to the market.
"We’ve taken the preclinical approach so far to date on our first indication which is hepatic encephalopathy, which is a brain-liver disorder, where you do have neuronal degradation and degeneration, oxidative stress," Petkanas told Fox News. "So we felt that we could look at that in parallel with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) another brain-related disease, and see if neuroprotection would indeed be afforded across that panel."
CTE is a progressive neurodegenerative disease caused by brain trauma, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), usually seen among athletes like NFL players. Though its symptoms include memory decline, changes in mood and behavior, depressions and irritability, CTE is different from Alzheimer’s disease. Signs of the disease aren’t usually noticeable until decades later (ages 40-50), so it’s often not diagnosed until death, which reveals accumulation of Tau protein in the brain.
Football is obviously a contact sport, but Fox News reports that to date more than 4,500 retired players have sued the NFL for supposedly downplaying and covering up that they knew the game could cause long-term neurological damage due to repetitive concussions.
That’s where Petkanas’ company comes in, hoping to develop cannabidiol-based (CBD) drugs – a form of medical marijuana – that can protect the brains of such athletes.
KannaLife Sciences is only in preclinical trials, so there’s no telling if and when NFL players can hope for a solution; but when NIH first obtained its patent, called "Cannabinoids as Antioxidants and Neuroprotectants" in 2005, they provided scientific evidence that certain properties of cannabis compounds could limit neurological damage following stroke or trauma, and help treat neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and HIV dementia.
Experts did bring up the issue of the marijuana showing up on the league’s drug tests, but Petkanas notes that the drug reportedly has no psychoactive effects, so it wouldn’t be an issue. His company plans to file an investigational new drug application with the FDA in early 2015.