For opponents of Massachusetts ballot question 2 worried that yesterday’s decriminalization of marijuana will lead to a new generation of users, help may soon be on the way from a small Woburn biotech company. The firm, called Aphios, aims to make a reformulated version of THC—the psychoactive substance found in marijuana that has long been the main chemical ingredient in a drug to treat pain in cancer patients and to improve the appetites of AIDS patents—for the treatment of what it calls “marijuana addicts.”
“Some people can utilize it and it never becomes an addiction,” Trevor Castor, CEO of Aphios, says, “and for other people it does become an addiction, just like smoking cigarettes becomes an addiction.”
There’s been some disagreement among medical experts and law enforcement officials over the addictiveness of marijuana. Nevertheless, the National Institute on Drug Abuse—a branch of the National Institutes of Health—has awarded Aphios an initial Small Business Innovation Research grant of $109,761 to develop a reformulated THC treatment for marijuana addiction and for other conditions, according to Castor. The firm says that the treatment could also be used in patients with such diseases as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s.
Aphios says that patients take the currently available dronabinol (Marinol)—a synthetic THC dissolved in sesame seed oil and taken in an oral gel capsule—several times a day because its absorption in the body is slow and unstable. Aphios plans to manufacture THC in biodegradable polymer nanospheres that would provide prolonged release of the substance and lower the number of doses needed. The intended slower release and more stable levels provided by the reformulated version would keep more consistent amounts of THC in patients’ systems. Similar to nicotine supplements for people addicted to smoking cigarettes, the THC treatment would go to receptors in the brain to provide the fix that people would otherwise get from using marijuana. Castor says his firm’s drug, which is three or so years away from human clinical trials, could be swallowed or administered by a dispenser inserted under the skin.
What was less clear to Castor was the market for his treatment. To his knowledge (and as far as I could tell), there are no approved treatments to marijuana addiction. Belgian pharmaceutical firm Solvay—which makes dronabinol—reported about $135 million in U.S. sales of the drug primarily for cancer and AIDS patients in 2007 (based on current exchange rates). Solvay now makes supplies of dronabinol for sale as a generic treatment.
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