Conference honors father of cannabis research

Prof. Raphael Mechoulam [photo: Douglas Guthrie]November 1, 2010: A major international scientific conference in honor of Prof. Raphael Mechoulam of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to mark his 80th birthday was held recently in Jerusalem. Prof. Mechoulam is considered the father of research on cannabinoids (materials found in the cannabis plant as well as related materials with similar activity found in the human body).

The conference, entitled "Cannabinoids in Biology and Medicine” was chaired by Prof. Itai Bab of the Hebrew University Faculty of Dental Medicine, and hosted by the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University. The conference was also supported by the Israel Science Foundation. It  attracted leading researchers from the US, the UK, Canada, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Poland and Switzerland who presented papers on advancements in the field.

Prof. Mechoulam, winner of the Israel Prize in chemistry in 2000, is known internationally for two major breakthrough discoveries. In the 1960s he first identified cannabinoids – a group of materials in the cannabis plant that are responsible for the medical benefits from the plant. This work was done with Prof. Yehiel Gaoni at the Weizmann Institute. He also defined the chemical structure of these materials and synthesized one them, THC. This revelation brought about a research breakthrough which has made possible the synthesizing of these materials in the laboratory or in extracting them from the plant itself in a variety of medicines. The research also served as a valuable tool in understanding the manner in which the materials functioned.

In additional work carried out in the early 1990s, Prof. Mechoulam’s research group at the Hebrew University isolated two naturally occurring  cannabinoid components – one from the brain, named anandamide (from the word ananda, meaning supreme joy in Sanskrit), and another from the intestines named 2-AG. These two cannabinoids, plus their receptors and various enzymes that are involved in the cannnabinoids’ syntheses and degradations, are within the endocannabinoid system. These materials have similar effects to those of the active components in hashish and marijuana, produced from the cannabis plant.

Research by groups throughout the world has since shown that the endocannabinoid system is involved in many physiological processes, including the protective reaction of the mammalian body to a long list of neurological diseases. Medicinal benefits also have been shown in such areas as easing the effects of chemotherapy, dealing with post-traumatic stress, or even coping with overweight.

Many patent applications by Prof. Mechoulam have been approved to date through Yissum, the technology transfer company of the Hebrew University. His patents have bee registered in19 countries around the world.

About four years ago Prof. Mechoulam, Prof. Itai Bab of the Faculty of Dental Medicine and Prof. Esther Shohami of the Faculty of Medicine found that cannabinoids played a role in protecting bone mass, leading to the development of a new medicines for osteoporosis.

Despite all the progress, researchers warn against use of cannabis and its derivatives that is not regulated by physicians and that is not for designated medical treatment.

Prof. Mechoulam sees a promising future for further research on cannabinoids. "I believe that there is a medical treasure that yet awaits discovery with cannabinoids,” he says.

Because of his groundbreaking work in cannabinoids and endocannabinoids, Prof. Mechoulam has achieved a worldwide following among scientists and medical experts working in the field. He and his colleagues from Israel and abroad have established the International Cannabinoid Research Society, which annually awards a Mechoulam Prize to researchers who have shown outstanding accomplishments in this area.

Source: Dept of Media Relations, Hebrew University