UC San Diego Receives $4.7M Gift for Medical Cannabis Research

Funding will support first of its kind, multi-disciplinary research on autism spectrum disorders at the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at UC San Diego School of Medicine

Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder that affects an estimated 1 in 68 children in the United States, yet treatment options are limited. Could cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive compound found in cannabis, hold clues for developing effective therapies? Thanks to a major gift from the Ray and Tye Noorda Foundation, researchers at the University of California San Diego will embark on a multidisciplinary study to investigate the potential of cannabidiol as a treatment for severe autism. The award was given in partnership with and based on recommendations the Noorda Foundation received from the Wholistic Research and Education Foundation.

The $4.7 million gift to the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research (CMCR) at UC San Diego School of Medicine is the largest private gift to date for medicinal cannabis research in the United States. The funding will support translational research to investigate whether medicinal cannabinoid therapies can alleviate symptoms in children with severe autism—and if so, how.   The groundbreaking study spans clinical, basic science, advanced mathematics and genetic techniques across the same cohort of patients, offering a comprehensive and systematic exploration of CBD efficacy on autism.

“UC San Diego is pleased to partner with the Noorda and Wholistic foundations to advance understanding of when and how medicinal cannabis works, and to use this information to transform the lives of the many people for whom medicinal cannabis may make a meaningful difference in their quality of life,” said David A. Brenner, MD, vice chancellor of UC San Diego Health Sciences. “We believe that by working together using evidence-based data, we can make the greatest impact on the field, our community and policy decision-makers.”

While the causes of autism are still not fully understood, a number of abnormalities have been identified in the brains of individuals with autism, including lower levels of available serotonin, a brain chemical associated with mood regulation; an imbalance between excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters; and irregular organization of brain networks.  Cannabidiol or CBD has a number of effects on the central nervous system which may be relevant to autism, including correcting imbalances in certain neurotransmitters, enhancing activity of endocannabinoids (neurotransmitters that modulate mood, memory and a variety of cognitive processes), modifying neural network signaling and protecting against neuroinflammation.

“The more severe manifestations of autism are difficult to treat, causing parents to look for non-traditional remedies,” said Igor Grant, MD, professor of psychiatry and CMCR director. “There are unconfirmed reports that cannabidiol could be helpful, but there are no careful studies to document either its benefits or its safety. This gift will enable our researchers to develop and implement a translational program of research that pairs a clinical trial with detailed neurobehavioral observation, as well as basic science studies to determine if cannabidiol holds therapeutic promise, and if so, via what mechanisms.”

The clinical study will be led by Doris Trauner, MD, a professor in the departments of Pediatrics and Neurosciences at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. Basic and translational research will be headed by Gabriel A. Silva, PhD, professor of bioengineering in the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering and professor of neurosciences, and Alysson Muotri, PhD, professor in the UC San Diego School of Medicine departments of Pediatrics and Cellular and Molecular Medicine.

“Given numerous anecdotal reports from parents suggesting CBD may be improving their child’s functioning, we are thrilled to partner with UC San Diego to understand under what circumstances CBD may be effective for autism, and why it seems to help certain individuals and not others”, said Pelin Thorogood, president and co-founder of Wholistic Research and Education Foundation.   “This is especially exciting since the multi-disciplinary approach employed by UC San Diego, combining clinical, basic and translational data across the same group of children, has the best chance of helping us understand the role of the endocannabinoid system in the treatment of autism.”

The CMCR at UC San Diego has been at the forefront of science and policy related to medicinal cannabis for nearly two decades. The center was established in 2000 after passage of California Senate Bill 847, which called for a program to oversee objective, high-quality medical research to advance understanding of the therapeutic value of marijuana. Its first studies looked at the potential benefits of cannabis for easing certain types of chronic pain, as well as severe muscle spasticity. Ongoing studies continue examining cannabinoids in pain management, as well as their effects on bipolar disorder and driving performance.

The gift from the Ray and Tye Noorda Foundation contributes to the Campaign for UC San Diego, a comprehensive $2 billion fundraising effort to transform the student experience, the campus and, ultimately, the way humanity approaches problems and develops solutions. Learn more at campaign.ucsd.edu.