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Jordan England-Nelson, Daily Breeze
An Orange County pharmaceutical startup has announced plans to develop drugs derived from marijuana plants to treat patients with glaucoma, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and other ailments.
Costa Mesa-based Nemus Bioscience has partnered with the Marijuana Research Project at the University of Mississippi, the only facility in the U.S. with federal approval to grow marijuana.
“Our goal in this evolving world of cannabis is to create pharmaceutical products that physicians will prescribe and you can go get at Rite-Aid, Walgreens or CVS,” Nemus CEO John Hollister said in an interview.
If future drugs pass clinical trials, Nemus could become the first U.S. company to develop a pain medication derived from marijuana plants.
Synthetic marijuana drugs have been available in the U.S. for years, but the Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve a plant-based product.
The FDA is overseeing studies and clinical trials for two botanical drugs developed by the British company GW Pharmaceuticals, one of which is available in Canada, Spain and the UK to alleviate muscle pain in patients with multiple sclerosis.
Bryson Ishii, a Lomita resident and associate director of Loyola Marymount University’s entrepreneurship program, is helping Nemus grow as a publicly traded company.
The company, which went public on Friday, already has raised several million dollars and hopes to raise another $10 million in the near future.
Developing a drug and guiding it through the FDA approval process can take several years and hundreds of millions of dollars to fund clinical trials.
Nemus is the first company Ishii has partnered with since co-founding Growth Factor Media, a business incubator that helps grow promising startups in the life sciences sector by providing web and IT services and help with investor presentations.
“Incubating a startup is like producing a blockbuster film,” he said. “We help bring all the right parts together.”
The intellectual property that Nemus has licensed from Ole Miss includes a compound derived from THC — the most active cannabinoid in marijuana — and several smoke-free delivery methods, including via the eyes and gums.
These delivery methods solve the “erratic absorption” problem that occurs with other medical marijuana products like edibles, pills and oral sprays, said Mahmoud ElSohly, the director of the University of Mississippi’s Marijuana Research Project.
“It is not consistent from subject to subject and it is therefore difficult to prescribe an exact dose,” ElSohly said. “It’s really a guessing matter.”
When marijuana is smoked or ingested, THC is metabolized by the liver, which increases the psychological side of being high.
By using an eye dropper and an aqueous form of THC, glaucoma patients can relieve pressure on the optic nerve without spreading the THC throughout their body.
Likewise, an anal suppository can provide sustained release of THC at low levels, so the patient enjoys the benefits of appetite stimulation or pain and nausea relief without the side effects of being high, ElSohly said.
A spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, a group that advocates for greater access to marijuana for therapeutic use, said the group supports the development of pharmaceutical cannabis drugs but the impact of these drugs on the cannabis community remains to be seen, given the high cost.
Health officials in the UK decided in October that the cost of GW Pharmaceutical drugs for multiple sclerosis outweighed the benefits. According to a report by the Guardian, the drug could cost private consumers up to $800 per month.
“In many ways, you can’t beat the low cost of growing marijuana and consuming it by inhaling it or ingesting it,” ASA spokesman Kris Hermes said. “It’s important to give patients as much choice as possible, and that includes both patient-cultivated and dispensary-distributed medical marijuana ... as well as prescribed cannabis drugs.”
Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, a trade group that represents businesses in the 23 states where some marijuana use is legal, questions whether the University of Mississippi would be able to grow enough plants to support commercial production of future Nemus drugs.
In May, the Drug Enforcement Agency approved an increase in marijuana production for research purposes from 46 pounds to more than 1,400 pounds to accommodate growing interest in marijuana research, the Washington Post reported in May.
The number of approved marijuana research projects has jumped from 22 in 2003 to 69 in 2012, according to a March story by the McClatchy Washington Bureau.
ElSohly was not concerned about accommodating future demand, estimating a single marijuana plant could provide enough THC for 1,000 to 3,000 doses for a glaucoma product.
“We have a lot of land to expand operations,” he said. “It’s not going to be a problem.”