The Rothman Institute at Jefferson, one of the nation's largest orthopedic practices, announced Thursday it would collaborate on a study to investigate the benefits of medical marijuana for patients suffering from chronic and acute pain.
Rothman will work with Franklin BioScience, a Colorado-based cannabis grower and retailer. Franklin BioScience expects to open a medical marijuana dispensary in late-March called Beyond Hello in Bristol Township, Bucks County.
"There's a link between access to cannabis and reduced opioid overdoses," said physician Ari Greis, a Rothman pain management specialist who will oversee the research. "We're all being cautiously optimistic that it could be helpful to some of our patients. Because we're leaders in orthopedic medicine, we feel this is an opportunity we can't pass up."
The announcement comes just after the state's medical marijuana program officially launched last week with the first legal sales of cannabis occurring at six dispensaries. Dozens more — which only will sell concentrates, vape pens, tinctures, and pills — are expected to open within the next several months.
The Rothman project will explore whether medical marijuana can be an effective alternative to opioids for pain management.
Researchers plan to enroll patients with lower back and leg pain brought on by sciatica, or compression of spinal nerves. Greis said he received approval for the observational study two weeks ago from Jefferson's Institutional Review Board. The research will be funded by Franklin Bioscience.
"Sciatica is an unbelievably common problem and people try to avoid surgery for it," Greis said. Opioids are a common treatment. Until the study design is complete, it's unclear how long the study will be conducted or how many patients will be involved.
"We have an obvious opioid crisis that is affecting our communities, and despite everyone's awareness of the problem there hasn't been a really obvious way to deal with it," Greis said. "A lot of patients have tried so many things — various medications, physical therapies, injections, and surgeries — with little relief. Now we have a new option. And it warrants looking into."
Some physicians at Rothman are so convinced of the potential of cannabis to supplant or complement opioids that they have invested in Franklin Bioscience, Greis said.
Bob Pease is the president of Pennsylvania operations for Franklin BioScience. He said the company — and the national marijuana industry — is bullish on the Keystone State.
"Pennsylvania could be the center of medical cannabis research for the country, given the way the state program is setting up," Pease said. "Because of the resources around Big Pharma, biotech, the medical and the scientific communities, we think that it's created an interesting dynamic for marijuana research. That's why we're having a big push there."
Rothman isn't the first medical center in the region to set out to research marijuana. Children's Hospital of Philadelphia announced in December it would pair with an Australian biopharmaceutical company to study the effects of cannabis on children with autism.