Researchers scramble for THC patent
February 03, 2005
John Lupton, Clemson Tiger
A small team of Clemson University researchers is in the process of patenting several chemical compounds derived from THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.
Drugs from these compounds could potentially be a huge breakthrough in the world of medicine that is a far cry from smoking dope to treat back pain or cataracts. When tested on animals, the drugs were also effective at fighting what is currently an untreatable cancer called Glioma.
Unfortunately, the best of these cancer-fighting compounds cannot be patented and developed by a pharmaceutical company, because it was published before the discovery of its incredible potential.
In 1997, John Huffman, a Clemson faculty member for 45 years who has led this research at the school for 20 years, created a compound and named it with his initials, JWH-133. He then published it in a 1998 edition of Bioorganic and Medicinal Chemistry, not realizing the possibility of a revolutionary drug coming from the compound.
'That's the name of the game if you want to get your grant back,' said Huffman, whose funding comes from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. 'And students want publications, because it helps them get a job.'
In 2001, Manuel Guzman, a professor of Biochemistry at Complutense University in Madrid asked Huffman for a sample of his compound to use for testing in mice. What he found has led to a race to patent compounds similar to 133. Guzman discovered that when he injected 133 into mice intentionally infected with Glioma, they experienced remarkable recoveries.
Huffman explained the difference between these compounds and medical marijuana.
'We do not do medical marijuana research,' he said. 'We have never had marijuana in our lab.'
What Huffman and his team do instead is look at how THC interacts with two different receptors in our bodies. One of these receptors, the CB1, was discovered in 1988. It is located in the brain, and its interaction with THC produces the high experienced after smoking marijuana. THC's bonding with the CB1 receptor also helps soothe nausea and pain.
A synthetic version of the drug, called Marinol, is already on the market to help increase appetite in AIDS and cancer patients.
Huffman's research, however, centers on THC's bonding with the CB2 receptor, which was discovered in 1993 and is part of the immune system. Huffman and five colleagues work together in Hunter Laboratory creating compounds that also bond with the CB2. Huffman's compounds differ from THC and its synthetic cousin Marinol because they do not bond with the CB1; they do not produce a high or an increase in appetite.
At the time of 133's creation, the CB2 receptor had been discovered, but the potential for a molecular compound like this one was unknown.
To date, Huffman and his associates have made 375 of these 'THC-like' compounds starting from simple chemicals. Several of the compounds are currently being looked at by the U.S. Patent Office. The compounds could prove very useful for their ability to bond with CB2s, because skin cancer and Glioma, a very deadly type of brain tumor, also make these receptors. Huffman explained that once 133 was published, it became impossible to patent, and without a patent no drug company will touch it.
'Since it's not patented, probably no one will ever use it,' Huffman said, explaining that drug companies will not likely back a drug unless they have exclusive rights to it. A company would have to fund millions of dollars worth of testing before the drug ever got approved by the Food and Drug Administration and made it to the market. Without a patent, cheaper brands could start coming out as soon as the drug was approved. So the company that actually backed the drug from the beginning comes out a loser.
Now that Huffman's prototype has been tainted, his problem lies in convincing the U.S. Patent Office that some of his similar compounds have enough novelty not to be deemed a 'logical extension' of JWH-133. The tragedy is that 133 was the best. But Huffman and many others around the country are now trying to create a better compound.
Some of Huffman's collaborators are currently negotiating with an overseas pharmaceutical company concerning Huffman's compounds that are already being looked at by the Patent Office.
If any of the compounds are patented, this company will likely get the rights to them.