A Maine-based aloe vera supplement producer is backing research at McGill University to see if its new CBD formula can treat chronic pain more safely and effectively than opioids.
Since launching in 1993, Desert Harvest Inc. has funded research around the world with the goal of finding new and effective plant-based pain treatments. The private firm’s patented aloe vera extract products continue to be studied by scientists in a number of global medical sectors including urology, women’s health, radiation oncology and dermatology.
And as the opioid crisis intensifies during the pandemic, the U.S. firm is now teaming up with McGill’s Research Centre for Cannabis in Montreal to study CBD as an alternative treatment for pain.
A growing body of evidence suggests cannabinoids are beneficial for a range of clinical conditions, including chronic pain and inflammation. Relatedly, the development of novel cannabinoid treatments is progressing rapidly. One new formulation, produced by Desert Harvest, combines cannabidiol with aloe vera to increase its bioavailability.
The company hopes funding new CBD research will help the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finally come up with regulations for cannabidiol products after a two-year wait. The goal is to make the CBD-aloe vera formula available to a wider population, especially veterans who suffer from chronic pain, at an affordable price.
In the new McGill pre-clinical study, the company’s product is currently being tested to see if it can help people suffering from interstitial cystitis, a chronic bladder condition still affects nearly 12 million Americans. Later this year, the researchers aim to launch a Phase 2 trial using human donor tissue from the spine to test how pain receptors respond to the CBD-aloe formula.
“This project is extremely important,” lead researcher Reza Sharif-Naeini says. “We are now witnessing the ravages of the opioid epidemic. Pain scientists have advocated for years that we cannot solely rely on opioid therapies, and that we need more funding for research into novel therapeutics.”
‘Here’s your Percocet, have a nice life’
For Desert Harvest CEO Heather Florio, finding new and effective pain treatments is personal.
In 2003, her husband suffered severe spine damage while serving in the U.S. military, leaving him unable to walk.
The couple felt left behind by the federal government after the injury, so they started searching for alternative treatments instead of relying on opioids to handle the crippling pain.
“When my husband got injured, the government offered no treatment options — we had to find our own,” Florio said in a phone interview. “It was like: ‘Here’s your wheelchair, here’s your pain drugs, your Percocet, whatever. Have a nice life.'”
Florio said they wanted to come up with something new to target his pain, and he effectively became her guinea pig.
After undergoing an experimental spinal surgery, she gave him Desert Harvest’s aloe extract.
In 1995, a study out of the Urology Wellness Center in Rockville, Maryland showed the aloe vera supplements helped relieve pain symptoms in 87.5 per cent of patients suffering interstitial cystitis, with no side effects.
While the aloe vera product hasn’t been tested specifically on treating spinal injuries, Florio said it helped control the pain after the surgery, and he was able to walk.
But her husband continues to suffer from pain today, so Florio has been wanting to see if adding cannabinoids to his health routine can help.
Last year, Desert Harvest launched its new CBD-aloe vera product, a combination that the firm owns patents for in the U.S., Canada and Europe.
Aloe vera has been proven to increase the body’s absorption of vitamins and nutrients. So, the company funded a recent University of Colorado study that found their CBD capsules facilitated a 25-per-cent-higher level of absorption into the bloodstream than other CBD products on the market.
And early research at McGill has shown that CBD may target the pathway of pain receptors found in the body. When pain signals are triggered by neurons in the bladder, they send signals to spinal cord neurons that process the information, and then neurons in the brain interpret the signal as being painful.
“We believe all three sites can be targeted by the CBD compound,” says researcher Sharif-Naeini. “This can form a synergistic action to relieve pain.”
To examine pain that begins in the bladder, his team has already been working with doctors at Montreal hospitals, as well as Transplant Quebec, for over two years. The McGill scientists received international praise last year as being the first to find the membrane in human sensory neurons that are involved in our capacity to feel mechanical pain.
The goal now is to determine whether patients’ pain sensitivity can be reduced by exposure to the CBD formulation. The researchers are awaiting final approval from Health Canada to begin testing Desert Harvest’s CBD, Sharif-Naeini said.
Florio says Desert Harvest received special permission from the Canadian government to bring its across the border. The company is currently working on finding hemp farmers north of the boarder to develop and manufacture the same CBD-aloe formulation to sell in Canada.
Canadian research may propel U.S. CBD regulations
Florio says Desert Harvest will submit its CBD research to the U.S. FDA, which has been seeking evidence to regulate the touted wellness extract since early 2019.
Currently, the agency has approved only one CBD product called Epidiolex, a prescription drug used to treat two rare forms of epilepsy. While it remains illegal to market cannabidiol in food, drinks and supplements in America, there are over 3,000 CBD brands sold in the country.
Desert Harvest wants to see the agency regulate CBD as a supplement so it could be sold at substantially lower prices than other pharmaceuticals.
While the FDA said it would be speeding up CBD drug research approvals last July, Florio says the department has been very slow in issuing licences during the pandemic. Human trials are still not allowed in America.
Even if Desert Harvest could get a research licence, it could cost millions of dollars for the small firm to get their CBD product registered as a drug in the U.S.
“For us, the ability to be able to still help people and not have to raise prices to a crazy amount is super important,” Florio says.
With Democrats in control of the White House and Congress, she believes federal lawmakers may veto the FDA and issue rules for CBD as a natural health supplement.
But for now, Florio is grateful to get research moving forward in Canada, a country that’s helping open new doors to cannabinoid research.
Desert Harvest plans to work on other studies in the future with McGill to see if CBD could help treat PTSD in veterans.
“McGill has been amazing, and so if we are able to go further into a double-blind placebo type controlled study, we’ll definitely stick with McGill on that.”
Top image via Deposit Photos