Dr. Jeff Chen is a physician, researcher, social entrepreneur, thought leader, and graduate of MD/MBA program at UCLA who has spent the past 4 years working at the intersection of cannabis, academia, research, nonprofit and government to accelerate cannabis research. He's the Director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative with the mission to study and support physical health, mental health and social well-being.
Why are doctors excited about the future of cannabis research?
Cannabis has been used as medicine by nearly every major civilization for the last 5,000 years. And it’s really only over the last 100 years that cannabis has been made illegal throughout the world (and research into it banned). Today, the legalization of cannabis is one of the greatest social experiments of our lifetime.
So our understanding of how cannabis helps humans with a variety of conditions is fairly recent?
Yes. A panacea is a drug that can treat a variety of ailments; it’s a so-called “cure all,” and for some, cannabis fits this bill. For the longest time, we didn’t even know why cannabis affected humans and it wasn’t until the 1990’s that scientists finally discovered the answer. It’s called the Endocannabinoid System.
How long have humans had an ECS?
Scientists think that over 500 million years ago, we evolved to have an Endocannabinoid System. Not just humans have endocannabinoids, but all mammals, birds, fish and reptiles. All vertebrates have an Endocannabinoid System. It is a part of complex, higher-order life on this planet. Endo means “internal.” Cannabinoid means “cannabis-like.”
What are Endocannabinoids?
Endocannabinoids are our body’s naturally produced molecules. And cannabis is the only plant in the world that produces cannabinoids. The Endocannabinoid System is your body’s own internal system of cannabis molecules and receptors. This system is ancient and primitive. It’s not just present in your brain — it’s present throughout your body as well, on your immune cells, on your skin cells, in your organs and in your peripheral nerves.
"The Endocannabinoid System is your body’s own internal system of cannabis molecules and receptors. This system is ancient and primitive. It’s not just present in your brain — it’s present throughout your body as well, on your immune cells, on your skin cells, in your organs and in your peripheral nerves."
What exactly does the ECS do?
The ECS regulates appetite, modulates pain, is involved in sleep, regulating mood, stress response, energy metabolism, how we break down and store fat and liberate energy, and reproductive function. The system is widespread, and is also involved in immune function. Your white blood cells have cannabinoid receptors on them, and when they’re activated it shuts down immune cells. When we’re talking about chronic inflammation, which is a driver of every single disease affecting humans and autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s and Lupus, it quiets it down. Cannabis is a modulator.
What is the difference between THC and CBD?
The most abundant cannabinoid is called THC. It is responsible for the psychoactivity of cannabis — it’s what makes you feel “high.” The second most abundant cannabinoid in cannabis is called cannabidiol, CBD. Now CBD is actually non-psychoactive, if you take it you are not going to feel “high.” CBD arguably has a much larger range of medical uses compared to THC. There are over 90 other cannabinoids in cannabis and we’re barely scratching the surface of what these compounds do. We know that functions of the Endocannabinoid System include pain, memory, appetite, stress and sleep, mood, metabolism, reproduction and immune function.
What excites you most about the work you’re doing to legitimize the plant as medicine?
I am here because I realized how little science exists. I have seen cases where people have really experienced the benefits of cannabis or certain cannabinoids and it’s really unfortunate that modern medicine can’t tell them whether it’s really working, at what dose, who should try cannabis and who should not.
"At the end of the day, my job isn’t to do pro or anti-cannabis research. My job is to do good science. Until we have good science, we aren’t going to be able to maximize the benefits of this plant and minimize the harm."
What does good science mean to you?
I do what I do to try and overcome the last 50 years of research limitations. I’m doing this for the patient, doctor, concerned parent and policy maker. I’m hopeful, and in my future I see that there’s a coming wave of a cannabis-scientific renaissance.
When cannabis can be used more widely as medicine, what do you think most people will use it for?
The most inspiring thing is consistently hearing from people using cannabis to effectively treat pain. Chronic pain is a debilitating condition and most people who have chronic pain do not believe they get good pain relief from modern medicine. Cannabis could be a revolutionary tool to address chronic pain and get people off of dangerous opioids.
I’m particularly excited about CBD, the non-psychoactive cannabinoid. CBD has anti-seizure, antioxidant, neuroprotective, anti-inflammatory, analgesic, anti-tumor, anti-psychotic and anti-anxiety properties. CBD arguably has a much larger range of medical uses compared to THC. It’s a neuroprotectant that can be used in neurogenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, it’s an anti-inflammatory that can be used in autoimmune disorders like Lupus or Crohn’s Diseases, it’s an analgesic that can be used in pain, it has anti-tumor properties — that is it directly kills cancer cells — it has anti-psychotic properties that can be used in schizophrenia and it can also be used in anxiety. Now, we have to take all of this with a grain of salt. This is all very preliminary research. It has only been done in animals, so we don’t know if it will pan out in humans. But if you combine this knowledge with the seemingly miraculous anecdotal data we hear all the time from people who use cannabis, we have something real to believe in.
Can you tell us more about your department within UCLA and what you’re trying to do with your research?
We are proud to be one of the first universities in the world focused on cannabis. Right now I’m designing the world’s first study to administer cannabis to chronic pain patients who are already taking opiods. We will track what happens to their pain, opioids use, and inflammation in the brain.
How did you become interested in this area of medicine?
I first became interested in this fascinating field when i was a medical student at UCLA. I’d encounter patients who were either using cannabis or had questions about medical cannabis. Frankly I didn’t know what to tell them.
"Cannabis isn’t a part of any standard curriculum at any medical school in this country."
It was also around this time that I was going to business school at UCLA. I started thinking about how could I build something and create an organization that could amplify and scale my efforts and really move the science and knowledge about cannabis forward.
How do you educate people about cannabis?
Education is just as important as the research because once we discover the truth we need to be able to translate and relay that to patients, policymakers and the general public. Educating the diverse stakeholders directly impacts our research and access to funding.
Why aren’t more medical experts studying the plant?
Cannabis is classified by the U.S. Government as a “Schedule 1 Drug” with “no perceived medical benefits,” so why would the government fund a study on the therapeutic potential of a plant that is classified as having “no medicinal potential”? If you want to study the harms of cannabis, there is substantial federal funding available. Also, people would much rather fund a compound or cannabinoid that they could own or build intellectual property around as opposed to funding studies into the natural cannabis plant product.
I wasn’t taught about the Endocannabinoid System in medical school. We don’t have FDA approved medications that target the Endocannabinoid System and they don’t really teach you things in medical school that we don’t have treatments for. There are many systems in the human body that are poorly understood and we don’t have specific treatments for them so they aren’t taught to doctors. As the tide of legalization is spreading, it is critically important to have an understanding of this system.
Dr. Chen's laboratory at UCLA
Why is it so hard to fund cannabis research?
Right now, the biggest bottleneck is accessing funding to understanding the medical potential of cannabis. At the federal level it’s not going to change anytime soon — the government and big pharma are not interested in researching the general plant —so it’s up to private donors that are passionate about cannabis to fund the research. Our research depends on private donors and philanthropists.
How is cannabis going to change our future?
I say cannabis is a plant that is going to change how we look at the compounds in food and plants as medicine, and as part of our health and wellness. If this is an area you’re passionate about, as citizens we have to fund the research ourselves through micro-donations so we can crowdfund cannabis research. Only through good scientific research can we start to unravel the mysteries of this gateway herb and usher in a revolution.
Editor's notes: interview conducted on October 5, 2018 and edited for length and clarity.