August 11, 2020

Harris and Harte awarded NIH R01

The research team will be among the first to use a precision medicine approach with cannabinoids

Richard Harris and Steven Harte
Richard Harris, Ph.D., (left) and Steven Harte, Ph.D.

Associate Professor Richard Harris, Ph.D., and Associate Research Scientist Steven Harte, Ph.D., have received a five-year, nearly $3.5 million National Institutes of Health R01 grant to test the effects of cannabinoids (active compounds in Cannabis sativa, also known as cannabis or marijuana) on pain processing in knee osteoarthritis patients.

The study, funded by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, is among the first to use a precision medicine approach with cannabinoids, in which individual patient characteristics are used to predict treatment response.  

“There’s been a shift in the field to determine new ways of providing treatment for chronic pain patients that don’t involve opioids. One popular but understudied treatment is cannabis, but it’s often done without guidance from doctors and without understanding scientifically the best dose or even the best route of administration,” Harris said. “We are trying to determine what class of individual patient with chronic pain is best suited to certain components from the cannabis plant.”

The 16-week clinical trial will include 160 participants that span the continuum of pain centralization. Participants will receive daily doses of either cannabidiol (CBD), Δ-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), a combination of the two cannabinoids or a placebo. The researchers then will compare the three treatments to the placebo group. They hypothesize that patients with pain due to inflammation in the knee may respond more favorably to CBD, while those with more centralized pain — that is, pain thought to be caused by disturbances in central nervous system pain processing — may respond better to THC. 

While the study will be conducted among patients with knee osteoarthritis, the researchers believe the results could be applied more broadly as both inflammatory and centralized pain contribute to pain and disability in other types of chronic pain.

"Our results will contribute to the ongoing debate of how to best utilize non-opioid analgesics for pain management," Harte said. "This is an area of critical importance in the context of the ongoing opioid epidemic."

Co-investigator Kevin Boehnke, Ph.D., also received an NIH K01 grant to conduct a secondary study on the effects on sleep and pain mechanisms in those with chronic knee osteoarthritis pain. Additional co-investigators include: Gus Rosania, Ph.D. (Pharmaceutical Sciences), Afton Hassett, Psy.D. (Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center and Anesthesiology), Daniel Clauw, M.D. (Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center and Anesthesiology), and Andrew Schrepf, Ph.D. (Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center and Anesthesiology).