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RTI Stories

A Decade of Cannabinoid Research at RTI

These compounds...were never intended for recreational use

RTI has always been deeply involved in opioid research, but the 2010's marked the Institute's deepening involvement in research involving another kind of psychoactive drug-cannabinoids. At the start of the decade, authorities had become increasingly concerned about products containing synthetic cannabinoids, sold under names like "K2" or "Spice." "These compounds were developed as research tools," said behavioral pharmacologist Jenny Wiley at the time. "They were never intended for recreational use, and we know relatively little about their impact on behavior and physiology."

With funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), RTI developed state-of-the-art approaches for the rapid analysis, detection, and mass spectral confirmation of designer drugs in these misleadingly labeled formulations, as well as in biological fluids. Worryingly, the results indicated that bans against the five most common synthetic cannabinoids had not prevented their manufacture and sale.

In May 2014, the National Institutes of Health announced new steps to address sex differences in preclinical research—that is, the need to design studies to consider and elucidate the effects of existing drugs and candidate medications in both male and female models. As one of only a handful of research institutes already studying these differences, RTI was in the third year of a study funded by NIDA to examine the sensitivity of males and females to THC, the primary psychoactive compound in marijuana.

A collaborative effort with researchers at Washington State University, the study focused on dependence-related and potential therapeutic effects. Researchers identified differences in sensitivity to the subjective and analgesic effects of THC and determined that women require lower concentrations of THC than men to feel high or experience pain relief.

Finally, in 2017, RTI helped identify a series of compounds that target cannabinoid receptors in the human brain while remaining outside the blood-brain barrier. In vivo studies showed that one promising compound alleviated nerve pain without affecting the brain, with no significant side effects, and even appeared to shrink cancerous tumors while also relieving the pain they cause.

As an interdisciplinary research institute with a long history of research into the social context of drugs, as well as their development, RTI is uniquely aware of the need for alternatives to opioids. That is why the Institute continues to study the risks and benefits of marijuana, along with the regulatory implications of this drug's increasingly legal status.