When it comes to knowledge with regard to marijuana – recreational or medical – there aren’t many people who can offer as much insight as University of South Carolina vice president of research Dr. Prakash Nagarkatti.
Nagarkatti, an Indian American immunologist originally from Dharwad, Karnataka, India, is among the foremost experts in marijuana, and he and his research team are studying the effect of marijuana in the treatment of autoimmune diseases and cancer.
The Nagarkatti lab was one of the first ones to demonstrate that certain types of cancers can respond to cannabinoids.
Its patent on use of Cannabidiol to treat autoimmune hepatitis has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration as an orphan drug.
“This shows that cannabinoids can also be used to treat other autoimmune diseases because the mechanisms that trigger autoimmune diseases are similar,” Nagarkatti explained to India-West.
Nagarkatti oversees a roughly $255 million-per-year research enterprise across seven satellite campuses.
He has introduced a large number of novel programs at USC to help promote interdisciplinary research.
Additionally, he serves as the Carolina Distinguished Professor; director of the NIH Center of Research Excellence in Inflammatory and Autoimmune Diseases; the NIH COBRE Center for Dietary Supplement and Inflammation; and a $20 million NSF MADE in SC Initiative.
Nagarkatti has been doing research on marijuana cannabinoids for nearly 20 years and is considered to be a global leader in this field.
“I am basically an immunologist who works on immune cells and identify the mechanisms though which they trigger inflammation and cause autoimmune diseases and cancer,” he explained to India-West.
“In 2000, I read publications which indicated that immune cells expressed unique receptors called CB2 and that cannabinoids can bind and activate such receptors. That led to my interest in studying what those receptors were doing on the immune cells and what the effect of cannabinoids had on the immune system.”
Nagarkatti, along with others, has gone on to show that immune cells express cannabinoid receptors and that they also produce cannabinoids very similar to the cannabinoids found in the marijuana plant, called endocannabinoids.
“We have shown that cannabinoids suppress inflammation and, thus, they are effective against autoimmune diseases such as arthritis, lupus, MS, colitis, hepatitis, and the like,” he noted. “There are over 80 autoimmune diseases against which there is no cure. Our studies have shown that cannabinoids may be very useful to treat such disorders. We have also shown that cancers that express cannabinoid receptors can be killed by marijuana cannabinoids,” he told India-West.
Nagarkatti elaborated further, saying marijuana has two main ingredients: THC that is psychoactive, and CBD, which is non-psychoactive.
“When patients are treated with marijuana, they need to be monitored for psychotropic effects,” said the expert. “Also, in young children, it can cause cognitive defects which need to be monitored.”
Nagarkatti said the government, in placing THC and CBD as Schedule 1 drugs, has made his research challenging, notably with clinical trials.
“Also, marijuana has the bad reputation that it is a drug of abuse,” he added. “Thus, any research proposed to prove the beneficial effects is faced with bias and skepticism.”
And despite legalization of the drug, there are still battles he and his research team face.
“The federal agencies have not changed their classification of marijuana while states have gone ahead with their laws to legalize recreational or medical marijuana,” he explained to India-West. “This poses huge challenge for researchers and clinicians wanting to pursue research.”
In order for things to operate more smoothly for Nagarkatti’s – and others’ – research efforts, the Drug Enforcement Administration needs to remove THC and CBD from Schedule 1 classification, he said.
“While Schedule 1 drugs have no medical benefits and are prone for abuse, the FDA has already approved both THC and CBD to treat certain clinical disorders,” he notes. “THC has been currently approved by FDA to treat nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy in cancer patients and to stimulate appetite and prevent weight loss in AIDS patients.”
Additionally, he said, THC and CBD obtained from the marijuana plant is available as a drug to treat Multiple Sclerosis in over 28 countries including in Europe and Canada.
An experimental drug (Epidiolex) derived from marijuana containing CBD was recently approved by the FDA to treat epileptic seizures against two most-difficult to treat childhood epilepsy, he added.
“In addition, THC and CBD obtained from marijuana was shown in a recent clinical trial to benefit patients with gliomas, cancers of the brain,” he said, adding that “the federal government can’t be saying on one hand that marijuana has no medicinal use while approving its constituents for treating medical conditions.”
In order to spread the word about marijuana and his research, Nagarkatti is travelling to all corners of the nation.
“When I tell them that we produce our own cannabinoids called endocannabnoids, which are absolutely critical for us to function well, they are very surprised,” he said. “They say that they were not aware of it.”
More recent research has shown that some clinical disorders can be triggered by deficiency in endocannabnoids that we produce, the Indian American said.
“Thus, it is only natural that such patients feel good when they replenish with marijuana cannabinoids,” he stressed.
Nagarkatti, additionally, has provided testimony to the South Carolina legislature on numerous occasions to talk about the benefits of cannabis for patients to facilitate the introduction of a bill to legalize medical cannabis.
He noted that pharmaceutical companies have slowly started developing products from marijuana.
Because inflammation is the underlying cause of most clinical disorders, and marijuana cannabinoids are highly effective to treat inflammation, it is likely that marijuana will be a huge medical industry, he said.
Recently, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine released a report on the health effects of cannabis after reviewing over 10,000 publications in the field of cannabis, noting that cannabis was highly effective against chronic pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting in cancer patients, and MS, to name a few, consistent with Nagarkatti’s research findings.
“My personal view is that no society or government should deny people with debilitating diseases an opportunity to lead happy and healthy lives using a plant made available to them by Mother Nature just because healthy people will likely abuse it,” he asserted to India-West.
Nagarkatti earned bachelor’s degrees in both botany and chemistry and a master’s degree in microbiology at Karnatak University in India, then a doctorate degree in immunology at India’s Jiwaji University.
He went on to receive received the Young Scientist Award from the Indian National Academy of Sciences, considered to be among the highest recognitions of promise, creativity and excellence in a young scientist.
In 1981, he moved to McMaster University in Canada, where he pursued post-doctoral Fellowship pursuing immunotoxicology research. He came to the U.S. in 1983 to do a second post-doctoral with at the University of Kentucky School of Medicine.
In 1985, he received his first NIH grant as a PI and he joined Virginia Tech as a tenure-track assistant professor where he quickly rose through the ranks to become a tenured full professor, pursuing research funded by NIH and NSF, and teaching several courses in Immunology and environmental health.
In 2000, he was recruited to the Medical College of Virginia at Virginia Commonwealth University where he served here as the director of immunotoxicology and a distinguished professor in the pharmacology and toxicology department.
In 2005, Nagarkatti moved to the University of South Carolina School of Medicine as associate dean for research, where he built the Basic Science Departments by doubling the research funding and serving as a PI on two NIH-funded centers. He assumed his current role in 2011.
Nagarkatti's research has been continuously supported by numerous grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation/Environmental Protection Agency and the American Cancer Society.
Since joining USC in 2005, he has secured more than $90 million in research funding. He has published over 275 scientific papers, and has trained more than 35 graduate students, 19 postdoctoral fellows, 20 junior faculty and 35 international scholars over the course of his career.
Nagarkatti is a Fellow of AAAS, Fellow of the Academy of Toxicological Sciences and Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors. He received the Vos Lifetime Career Achievement Award from the Society of Toxicology.