While researching the ability for traditional Chinese herbs to combat modern diseases, California Pacific Medical Center scientist Garrett Yount and his colleagues had a breakthrough: cancer cells could be weakened and shrunk and healthy cells left undisturbed when subjected to a compound found in a common plant.
This was in 2005. Despite the meaning of the discovery -- that there could be a healthier alternative to body-ravaging chemotherapy and radiation treatments for cancer -- there hasn't been much follow-up research. Because, of course, the plant is cannabis, and marijuana is federally illegal.
That means no research, and no advancing science.
Recently, Yount joined the board of a biotechnology firm that's trying to get a cancer treatment involving cannabis onto the market. And one reason why, he said in an interview, is that the private sector appears to be the only way to advance knowledge.
Yount is now on the scientific advisory board of Medical Marijuana Sciences, Inc. The organization is a subsidiary of Nuvilex, a company that's trying to patent "live-cell encapsulation" treatments for cancer and diabetes.
At least at the theoretical level, the treatment method is not new. Living cells -- and in some cases pharmaceutical drugs -- are put into a cocoon or "capsule," and inserted into a patient's body at the area that needs treatment (such as a tumor).
The "capsule" fools the antibodies and escapes rejection, and meanwhile from the live cells are emitted whatever the body needs: insulin in the case of diabetes sufferers, and the cocktail necessary to kill cancer in cancer patients.
At least that's Nuvilex's hope. The drug is still a long way from clinical trials, which means that it's anyone's guess at how long it'll be before it reaches the market.
Marijuana fits into this picture, thanks to the research of Yount and others. Specifically, he found that "cannabinoids are some of the most potent compounds for killing cancer cells," he said in a recent telephone interview. "We showed that THC could kill cancer cells and didn't kill normal brain cells."
That's the kind of thing you'd think would be followed up on. And it would be if any research funding was allocated. Federal funding of any kind for research is hard to find, Yount said, and to get a federal grant to research something like marijuana, a Schedule I controlled substance? Forget it.
Yount's findings weren't the first, either. A study in Spain famously found that THC shrunk tumors in lab rats. And there's a mountain of anecdotal evidence from cancer-sufferers who say that cannabis helped, and in some cases healed them.
"If we were to have these results from a novel form of chemotherapy it would be huge," he said. "It's clearly a double standard with cannabinoids."
Cannabinoids are going to be added to Nuvilex's live cells in preclinical studies, and Yount hopes that by "operating out of academia," and doing work associated with the private sector, that the science may go forward.
Because for now, it seems the only way forward.