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UA researchers say molecule in cannabis could 'make pain relief higher' for cancer patients

New study tested benefits of terpenes, component that gives plants taste and smell; how they compare in pain relief vs. opioids
Posted at 10:56 AM, Jun 11, 2024

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — A team of researchers at the University of Arizona's College of Medicine-Tucson thinks they've found a breakthrough in pain relief for cancer patients.

KGUN 9 visited John Streicher, PhD, a lead member of the research team working on campus. Streicher, a professor and pharmacologist, helped the team look deeper into the potential benefit of some specific molecules in cannabis.

Older studies tried to look at how THC and CBD, the cannabinoids in the cannabis plant, would help manage the kind of numbing, shooting kind of nerve pain that comes as a side effect of taking chemotherapy drugs.

Past research showed that while THC and CBD did give people some moderate relief, their use also gave subjects unwanted psychoactive side effects that change someone's mood or behavior.

That's why the team from the Comprehensive Center for Pain and Addiction wanted to try an alternative with terpenes.

Streicher said you may not know that exact word, but you've smelled and tasted terpenes before.

"That kind of nice, lemony smell from a fresh lemon -- that's d-limonine, that's a terpene," Streicher said. "The smell of pine in the air when you're walking through a pine forest, that's beta-pinene that's found in pine trees."

"What wasn't appreciated until a little bit more recently," he also said, "is that these molecules also might have a therapeutic benefit, a pharmacological benefit."

The research team, Streicher said, wanted to test five cannabis terpenes. Worth noting, because the scientific testing is still in an early stage — scientists compared how mice would respond to terpene therapy versus receiving morphine for their chemotherapy-induced pain.

The big takeaway: Each terpene helped reduce pain at comparable levels to morphine. Streicher said of all the methods they tried in the testing, the best delivery method is through injection.

The research team was also pleased to find terpenes could offer another benefit: They blocked what Streicher called the 'addiction potential' of opioids, when they were mixed with terpenes as a medicine.

"Making the pain relief higher, the addiction potential lower," he said, "the idea would be maybe we can make a combined therapy with these two drugs together that are going to be highly effective for managing pain while blocking and reducing that addiction liability."

Streicher said one advantage researchers in Tucson will have to start a human trial sooner, is that terpenes are considered food. Therefore, they wouldn't be deemed a new drug that requires FDA approval.

Streicher said he's also hopeful if, or when, the federal government moves cannabis out of the strictest Schedule 1 category, that scientists will then have easier access to cannabis samples.

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José Zozaya is an anchor and reporter for KGUN 9. Before arriving in southern Arizona, José worked in Omaha, Nebraska where he covered issues ranging from local, state and federal elections, to toxic chemical spills, and community programs impacting immigrant families. Share your story ideas and important issues with José by emailing jose.zozaya@kgun9.com or by connecting on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.