High hopes for medical cannabis from Israel

by Brian on October 13, 2017

in Health,In the News,Science

Israel may have finally figured out a way to stop BDS. We’ll get the leaders of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement so stoned they won’t be able to demonize us anymore.

That’s a joke, of course, but the truth – at least about the means if not the ends – is not so far removed.

When the Knesset returns for its winter session shortly, among the bills members will be asked to consider is a law opening up the country’s booming medical cannabis business to international export. It’s a market that could bring in as much as $4 billion a year in revenue. Health Minster Yaakov Litzman is behind it, as is Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon.

Israel has in recent years become a world leader in the research, production and growing of cannabis for medicinal purposes.

Israel actually pioneered research into the plant when in 1963 Prof. Raphael Mechoulam, then a young scientist at the Weizmann Institute, strolled into a local police station and asked if the cops had had any spare cannabis laying around. They did and Mechoulam took an Egged bus back to his lab with 5 kilos of Lebanese hashish in his bag. The following year, he became the first scientist to successfully isolate the THC component in cannabis.

Fast forward to now, where some 50 American companies have established R&D operations in Israel or partnerships with local firms such as Tikkun Olam, One World Cannabis Pharmaceuticals, and ICAN. Nearly 700 Israeli entrepreneurs, anticipating the expected approval of the export law, have applied to the Ministry of Health to grow or sell cannabis-related products.

In 2016, more than $250 million was invested in cannabis research in Israel. Cannabis may not rival Israeli high-tech (yet) but it is clearly big business.

Which is how, a few weeks back, I found myself on a tour with some 20 journalists to the Breath of Life Pharma facility in the center of Israel. BOL may very well be the largest medical cannabis operation in the world: There’s a 35,000 square foot production plant, 30,000 square feet of grow rooms and labs, and a million square feet of cultivation fields.

When we weren’t strolling the grounds, we heard lectures from a mini who’s-who of cannabis experts. They included Dr. Adi Aran, who is studying the effect of medical cannabis on autism at Sha’arei Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem; Dr. Itamar Raz, the head of the Israel National Diabetes Council who has found that medical cannabis can help both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes; and Yuval Landschaft, who heads up the Medical Cannabis Unit in the Ministry of Health.

It was during Landschaft’s PowerPoint presentation that a particular slide caught my eye – a page from the 1899 edition of Merck’s Manual (“a ready reference pocket book for the practicing physician”) which listed over 50 “prescribed uses” for cannabis.

One of the ailments on the list: insomnia, which regular readers of this column know has been the bane of my too wakeful life.

My hand shot up during the question and answer period. “Have there been any clinical trials with insomnia yet?” I wanted to know.

BOL CEO Dr. Tamir Gedo answered. “Not yet,” he said, “but we plan to start one in 2018.”

It makes sense. Anecdotally, at least, the non-psychoactive “CBD” component in cannabis (there are 140 different “cannabinoids” in the plant; THC is the one that gets you high) has been used for insomnia since … well, Merck’s time. A key 2006 study showed that CBD has a positive impact on the sleep mechanism of rats.

But other than several studies from the early 1970s that have been dismissed for having poor controls, and a 2016 investigation using CBD oil to address PTSD-induced sleep disturbances, no major human studies have been conducted yet.

BOL isn’t the only cannabis company in Israel looking at plant-based alternatives to Ambien and Lunesta. ICAN is partnering with the American pharmaceutical company CannRX Technologies to develop a precise sleep formulation.

ICAN and CannRX announced their intentions during this year’s “CannaTech” medical cannabis conference in Tel Aviv. The medication, dubbed “ICAN.sleep,” will be delivered using a metered inhaler – similar to the ones used for asthma. “You take a puff or two, depending upon the dosage, and basically within ten minutes you’ll be drowsy enough to sleep,” explained CannRX executive chairman Bill Levine.

I called up ICAN founder and CEO Saul Kaye to ask if I could get on the trial. He was interested. It’s hard to find test subjects in Israel who haven’t used cannabis recreationally, he told me, not entirely kidding. Israel, it turns out, has the world’s highest ratio of cannabis users: 27 percent of the population aged 18-65 smoked or vaped in the last year.

Kaye said that because Israel has focused on “medicalizing” cannabis rather than legalizing recreational use, “we have destigmatized better than other places.”

An example: Netafim, the pioneering Israeli drip irrigation firm, has been developing greenhouse systems for growing cannabis.

And why not? This part of the world has an ideal climate. “Israel is blessed with 340 days a year of sun, and cannabis flowers thrive in a warm climate,” Gedo told the journalists during the BOL tour.

My BDS cannabis wisecrack might not have been the pithiest, but I have high hopes that Israel’s medical cannabis industry could revolutionize healthcare in general and insomnia in particular. And that’s nothing to joke at.

I first wrote about the coming high times for The Jerusalem Post.

I also covered the medical cannabis market for Israel21c.

Picture courtesy of Breath of Life Pharma

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