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Tuesday April 3, 2001

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UA researchers study cannabinoids as glaucoma treatment

By Jeremy Duda

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Compounds from the marijuana family can lower eye pressure

Researchers from the University of Arizona are studying cannabinoids as a potential treatment for glaucoma.

William Stamer and Robert Noecker, both assistant professors of ophthalmology, have been researching the ability of cannabinoids - a family of compounds that includes the active component of marijuana - to lower high pressure in the eye, which causes glaucoma.

"There's no doubt that smoking pot lowers eye pressure. The idea is to eliminate the side effects," said Noecker.

The elevated pressure caused by glaucoma usually results in damage to the optic nerve and can cause an eventual loss of vision. It is the second leading cause of blindness in the United States.

Much research was done in the 1970s on the effects of cannabinoids on glaucoma patients, but the political atmosphere of the 1980s prohibited such research from continuing, he said.

In the last decade, however, there has been an increase in the amount of research done in this field.

One of the main successes of the research has been in locating and identifying the two parts of the eye that regulate eye pressure. Cannabinoids bind with and activate cells called receptors, which control the pressure.

Noecker and Stamer have been studying synthetic cannabinoid eye drops, which eliminate the need to smoke marijuana to feel the benefits of the drug.

The synthetics have a very low concentration of THC, the main psychoactive component of marijuana, and the synthetic eye drops are more effective than actual marijuana, Stamer said.

"The nice thing about treating glaucoma with cannabinoids is it goes directly to the eye and doesn't have all these side effects," he said.

Medicated eye drops are nothing new in the treatment of glaucoma. Drugs such as beta blockers and agonists have been in use for some time. These agents sometimes result in side effects such as a lowered heart rate and impotence.

Laser surgery, the second option in the treatment of glaucoma, carries even more potential side effects. Complications during the procedure can cause infections or blindness.

"That's why we don't just jump into this procedure, although it does work pretty well," Noecker said.

Whether cannabinoids have similar side effects to other eye-drop medications has yet to be determined. Research so far has been done on cells in lab cultures, and has yet to be tested on an actual patient.

Similar research is being done in this field elsewhere in the United States, and some drug companies have synthetic cannabinoids as long-term goals, Stamer said.

"I don't know if it's superior, but it's different. The idea is to have as many options as possible," Noecker said.