Dr. Igor Spigelman, chair of the biosystems and function section at the UCLA School of Dentistry, has received a $5 million grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke for research aimed at developing a non-addictive cannabis-based pain medication for oral cancer patients.

The five-year multidisiplinary study will leverage the collective expertise of researchers from the dental school, UCLA’s department of chemistry and biochemistry and department of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences, and New York University. It also aligns with a nationwide effort to curb opioid misuse and addiction while enhancing pain management.

Synthetic cannabinoids, lab-developed chemicals intended as an alternative to marijuana, target receptors outside the brain. Unlike traditional medicinal cannabis, which has shown efficacy in treating pain but is marred by significant side effects, these drug compounds can be created without addictive properties.

“We are dedicated to developing a new class of medications that alleviate cancer pain without the adverse effects of addiction,” said Spigelman, who also directs the school’s doctoral program in oral biology. “Our synthetic compounds offer a promising alternative by directly addressing the chronic pain experienced by oral cancer patients, enhancing their quality of life without compromising mental acuity, motor coordination or memory.”

Previous pre-clinical studies conducted by the research team have demonstrated the effectiveness of such compounds in suppressing cancer- and chemotherapy-induced pain without inducing tolerance to the medication.

Once the drug is optimized, Spigelman’s team plans to submit an application to the Food and Drug Administration for a Phase I clinical trial.

Spigelman’s co-primary investigators are Catherine Cahill, Julian Whitelegge, and Alex Spokoyny of UCLA and Brian L. Schmidt of the NYU College of Dentistry.

The grant is being administered through the National Institutes of Health’s Pain Therapeutics Development Program as part of the NIH’s Helping to End Addiction Long-term Initiative.