Since humankind has discovered healing properties of herbs like cannabis, inhalation through smoke has been the delivery method of choice. Smoking cannabis makes the molecules go straight to the blood and brain. It’s great for some people, but for those using cannabis medicinally –– and want to work, drive and tend to their children –– rolling and smoking a joint with all of its psychoactive effects isn’t appropriate.
Meet LaraPharm, an Israeli company that plans on delivering cannabis through an inhaler, not as a wet vapor, oil, or in a brownie, but as a synthetic material put inside a dry puff inhaler, the same inhalers used to treat asthma.
It is the first company in the world to take THC and other cannabinoids and attempt to deliver them this way. Rita Alter (left), the CEO and founder of LaraPharm, founded the company four 4 years ago and has put her family savings behind the idea: she believes it could be a winning solution for the multi-billion pharmaceutical companies that want to go into the medical cannabis business but who don’t know how to approach cannabis from a medicinal standpoint.
Cannabis growing to $40 billion in the US
The major Pharma companies cannot sell joints, says Alter: “They need a pharmaceutical medicine with controlled dosage and efficacy. For them, the medical cannabis business is a multi-billion dollar game they’re left out of. LaraPharm can turn the tables on that and provide them with a viable medicine replacing medical marijuana,” she tells Green Prophet.
It was in the clinical setting that Alter first got turned onto cannabis. Four years ago she was working for the Helsinki Review Board at an Israeli hospital. The international review board oversees clinical trials and makes sure that doctors are not breaching human rights and are delivering the experimental medicines as required. There, she noticed the real need for a medicinal form of medical marijuana.
Along with their prescribed medicines, top doctors, heads of wards, were telling patients suffering from extreme pain or gastrointestinal problems to take their medicines but also to go home at night and smoke a joint. Because pot can help, they told their patients.
“It was strange to hear many senior doctors telling their patients suffering from pain or stomach ailments to go home and smoke some marijuana,” says Alter. “Of course it sounded weird at first. But I understood that marijuana is a plant with great therapeutic qualities.”
Alter knew that she was onto something and started furiously researching and mapping cannabis use throughout the centuries. What happened next is what makes Alter part of Israel’s Startup Nation: With a background in microbiology, human immunology and genetics Alter started working on a company: “I looked at the use of cannabis in cultures around the world, as a medicine for giving birth, and then the later demonization of cannabis that spread throughout Europe until recent times.”
She could do something new.
Alter then collected scientists who’d worked at the failed Israeli cannabis company Pharmos, to treat pain, and those from respected pharma companies like Taro and Teva. They dove, quite literally, into pot together.
Some $250,000 has been put into the company so far. Unlike in the US where research on cannabis compounds is illegal on the federal level, in Israel it is not and talking about it and dealing with it has become in a way commonplace, although it is illegal to smoke recreationally in Israel.
Taking marijuana to clinical studies
Today, with her advisors, and an investment from Therapix, a local publicly traded bio-med investment company, Alter is building a startup in Israel to help people dose themselves using a new kind of inhaler that delivers medical grade synthetic cannabis molecules just like an asthma inhaler.
Alter has built the breakthrough formulation design, filed a patent and is now looking for an investment of about $13 million USD to enter clinical trials with expected commercial launch within two years.
She aims to create a medical solution that can portion out medical grade and replicable doses of synthetic, cannabis-like drugs to sick people who need it most. The drug will be developed in such a way that the dose will be standard and reliable, to meter out the same effects every time.
Consider that the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly that had a cannabis extract on the market 100 years ago. The same company today might want to get into cannabis but doesn’t have a channel.
Also, today the landscape is bleak for people in need of medical cannabis. Just smoking the plant flowers can’t ensure a regular and reliable dose due to genetic variations of the plants being grown, how it’s grown and how it’s administered.
Meanwhile in terms of pain relief there haven’t been any advances since NSAIDs (Ibuprofen) or opiates which can be highly addictive, says Alter: “I saw the need and dug in.”
Scientists today estimate that cannabis contains 70 or more active compounds. THC, the chemical that gets you high in pot is one of the most therapeutically influential but it is also only one of 70. What Alter plans to do is build a platform solution so that drug companies can build dozens or more of their own drugs, based on these molecules in any combination and then deliver them through the inhaler.
Can LaraPharm put the major Pharma companies back into what’s estimated to be a $40 billion legal market in the US alone by 2020?
“Well we aren’t the first to think about the need,” Alter says humbly. There is Marinol, a company with $200 million in sales that produces a synthetic THC and delivers it with sesame oil. It’s been on the market for 30 years to treat chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting and reportedly works very poorly. After reaching the blood and due to the liver pass there is a dumping effect and a person gets high for a long period of time.”
Then there is GW Pharma, a $1.3 billion company with contracts in 25 countries that produces a THC and CBD spray (Sativex) which is absorbed sublingually, or under the tounge. The company is listed on the LSE and NASDAQ stock exchanges but you can’t find it in the US, she says. “Patients globally report dissatisfaction from this solution and the Sativex sales never really took-off.”
Those two companies pretty much sums up the international business for medical cannabis pharmaceuticals, Alter notes.
Alter thinks the delivery system is the problem, because, she nods, “think about how most people use cannabis today? They smoke joints.”
What she’s done is developed a dry inhaler, the same kind used for asthma sufferers, and has loaded it with a dried powder made form synthetic THC. While the THC is not patentable, the delivery method is: how the powder is made and how the combinations of drugs can be formulated for specific diseases.
It is the know-how of this unique formulation and pharmaceutical constituents that Alter wants to use to entice large pharmaceutical companies.
Over in Jerusalem, where THC was discovered by Prof. Raphael Mechoulam in the 60s “he is screaming for someone to do something with these molecules,” Alter says.
Indeed. Among the many times I’ve interviewed Mechoulam he says that a replicable, medicinal grade dosage system is highly sought after.
LaraPharm includes a management team of six that started working on the product three years ago. So far Alter has invested her family savings into the company, about $250,000 and an investment in the company this past summer by the Israeli company Therapix.
Today she is seeking about $12 million to get her through the 12 months of animal studies, lung tests, and first-in-man clinical trials. When done, she plans to go ahead to pass Phase II regulations.
Then comes the bigger mountains to climb that people who smoke joints don’t think about: Alter will need about $150 million to turn LaraPharm into a global leader providing cannabis-based solutions for the development of a whole family of novel drugs for unmet medical needs.
Is she crazy?
The pharma business is risky, with high stakes, but the rewards can be worth it, she says. Especially if you are always aware of the real goals of this enterprise, Alter says.
“My motto is: let’s help sick people first.”
To read more on LaraPharm, click here.
Image of woman and inhaler from Shutterstock