The Ontario Lung Association and its industry partner, Tetra Bio-Pharma, have joined forces to fund and promote medical research that the two partners believe should help resolve some of the major controversies over the possible lung health risks and benefits of using cannabis.
“With the legalization of medical and recreational cannabis in Canada, we are finding big gaps in the scientific literature on the short- and long-term impacts of marijuana smoking on the lungs,” says George Habib, president and CEO of the Ontario Lung Association. “We must do what we can to fill these gaps with evidence-based scientific research and pass that information on to the one in five Canadians that suffer from lung disease,” Habib told The GrowthOp.
“The risks of smoking cannabis are quite different from those linked to smoking tobacco.”
The hope is the work being done by recipients of this year’s three Cannabis Research Awards—announced Mar. 28 at the Breathe! Bash, the association’s annual benefit celebrating lung health research—will help advance those goals. All researchers are “affiliated with an institution that has long been active in lung health research,” Habib says.
- Jeremy Hirota, PhD, Canada Research Chair in respiratory mucosal immunology and an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at McMaster University, will investigate whether smoking cannabis increases the risk of developing viral respiratory tract infections. Research indicates cannabinoids have been shown to modulate immune cells leading to higher airway infection rates in some patient populations. In addition, several case studies have detailed serious respiratory infections, including in immune-compromised cancer patients who were smoking medical cannabis to alleviate pain.
- Tetyana Kendzerska, an associate scientist with the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute and an assistant professor in the Department of Medicine at the University of Ottawa, will study the effects of recreational cannabis on obstructive sleep apnea. While some research supports the use of cannabis derivatives to improve respiratory stability, side effects have been reported. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine currently cautions against the practice based, in part, on the scientific uncertainties.
- Nicholas Vozoris, an associate scientist with Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute at St. Michael’s Hospital and an assistant professor and clinician investigator within the Department of Medicine at the University of Toronto, will examine whether doctors should be using standard breathing tests when seeing cannabis smokers with lung troubles. Curiously, several studies (though not all) have failed to show that smoking cannabis negatively affects lung function test results.
Why the partnership is a good fit
Tetra Bio-Pharma, a biopharmaceutical company focused on cannabinoid-based drug discovery and development pharmaceuticals, funded each of the three awards with one-year aid in grant awards.
George Habib, president and CEO of the Ontario Lung Association.
“Our business approaches and philosophies are so similar. It made sense to broker a more formal relationship and work together on research and education projects,” Habib suggests. “Together, we can play a leading role in cannabis-related medical research in Canada.”
The call for research proposals went out this past January. The applications received were graded, then peer-reviewed independently, and will be administered at arm’s length from the funders. The findings, which are to be published within a year, will also be disseminated through social media, the association’s website, its toll-free health information line and its two associated professional societies, the Ontario Thoracic Society and the Ontario Respiratory Care Society.
“The results of these projects will ensure there is a larger evidence base to pull from when educating the public and healthcare providers about the impact of cannabis use on lung health,” Habib says.
How do the risks of cannabis and tobacco smoking differ?
“The risks of smoking cannabis are quite different from those linked to smoking tobacco,” says Guy Chamberland, PhD, CEO and chief scientific officer at Tetra Bio-Pharma. For instance, there is no evidence that cannabis causes either COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] or lung cancer, Chamberland argues, but adds it is not safe to use both tobacco and cannabis, which can have a synergistic impact on COPD. “However, there are still lots of unknowns, including the effect of smoking cannabis, either medically or recreationally, on obstructive sleep apnea or the immune system of the lungs,” he notes.
Guy Chamberland, PhD, CEO and chief scientific officer at Tetra Bio-Pharma.
“Physicians are very, very cautious in prescribing a new drug or treatment regime to their patients—especially one you might smoke—and rightly so,” says Chamberland.
To earn their trust, “you need to find a neutral independent body that can get the safety data and provide balanced, unbiased information to patients and the healthcare community. I really look forward to reading the data generated by these studies.”
Chamberland is not alone. As of the end of December 2018, nearly 360,000 medical cannabis clients had registered with a federally licensed seller in Canada, and another 27,281 had registered with Health Canada to grow their own (or have a designated person do it for them).
It’s no coincidence the Ontario Lung Association has seen an increase in cannabis-related questions from patients submitted through its website or to the respiratory educators who staff its help lines. Habib could not provide a specific number, but noted the queries were definitely up and the association has started to track those figures.
How might research serve as practical help for patients?
“While, generally speaking, inhaling smoke into the lungs isn’t usually considered a good idea,” Habib says, many patients are trying medical and recreational cannabis in different formulations and forms—including edibles, creams and vaporized cannabis, as well as the more common smokables—to alleviate their symptoms. “We have to keep our eyes, ears and minds open to new cannabis-related health questions and research possibilities,” he explains. “Each new piece of research information builds on the last.”
Chamberland says Tetra Bio-Pharma will continue to work with the association on new areas of research, as well as following up on the three cannabis studies funded to date. “You can’t turn your back on somebody who is generating good data,” he says.