Researcher developing marijuana patch

$361,000 grant awarded to aid study of treatment for cancer patients


ALBANY, N.Y. -- Dr. Audra Stinchcomb says she has never smoked marijuana, but that does not prevent colleagues at the Albany College of Pharmacy from inquiring about her "pot patch" or "doobie derm" whenever they can.

Her two-year effort to research and develop a medical marijuana patch that would release the drug's active ingredients through the skin has inspired more one-liners than she can recall. The patch is intended to be used by cancer patients for relief from nausea, vomiting and other side effects of chemotherapy.

"Everybody always comes in and has a new joke for me," said Stinchcomb, 34, an assistant professor at the pharmacy college and a leading researcher on the ways that chemicals are absorbed through the skin.

But Stinchcomb's research is being taken seriously by doctors and scientific researchers as evidence increasingly suggests that chemicals in marijuana have health benefits. A report last year by the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded that the chemicals, called cannabinoids, relieve pain and nausea, although the report warned that marijuana smoke is more toxic than tobacco smoke.

This month, Stinchcomb's proposal for a marijuana patch was awarded a $361,000 grant from the American Cancer Society.

"I think this is a bold step for us," said Don Distasio, the cancer society's chief operating officer in New York and New Jersey, who acknowledged that the proposal was controversial but said it had been screened by three panels of doctors, scientists and staff members.

The project has been approved by the Drug Enforcement Administration, which regulates experiments with illegal drugs.

The patch would use synthetic cannabinoids created in a laboratory and is years from being tested on people. But it has piqued interest because it offers a compromise in the battle over whether to legalize marijuana.

Dr. Eric Voth, chairman of the International Drug Strategy Institute, an Omaha, Neb., group that reviews drug policies, said the patch could provide the therapeutic effects of marijuana without making the drug available.

"It's no more a marijuana patch than a nicotine patch is a tobacco patch," Voth said. "I'm all for trying to find pure, reliable medicine, but I do not support the idea of smoking weed for medicinal purposes."

Stinchcomb prefers to stay clear of the political debate. "There's an extremely serious side to this, because it's treating cancer patients," she said. "I want the project to be perceived that way."

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