A researcher at the University of California Los Angeles has been awarded a $3.9 million grant to study how cannabis can help with pain relief, the institution announced on Wednesday. The grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health was awarded to Ziva Cooper, the research director of the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative.

Cooper, who is also an associate professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, will use the grant to study whether cannabis terpenes can reduce the amount of opiate medication a person needs to reduce pain. It is believed that terpenes, which are responsible for the distinctive aromas and flavors of cannabis, can improve the pain-relieving properties of THC while reducing unwanted side effects.

“Chronic pain is a significant public health burden and there are few effective treatments that lack the adverse effects that limit use,” Cooper said Wednesday in a press release.

Can Terpenes Help Relieve Pain?

The grant, which will be awarded over five years, will also fund research into how terpenes and THC interact with each other in a phenomenon known as the entourage effect. To conduct the study, researchers will examine two terpenes, myrcene and ß-caryophyllene. The compounds will be administered separately to determine if they can reduce pain on their own. 

The terpenes will also be administered with THC to see if they increase the cannabinoid’s pain-relieving properties while lessening its psychoactive effects. The potential for terpenes to reduce the opioid dose needed to relieve pain will also be examined separately. Cooper said that the research is important because it addresses the need to reduce the use of opioid medications for pain management, which is a significant public health priority.

“Specific chemicals in the cannabis plant taken alone or together may be effective options with minimal side effects — placebo-controlled studies to explore this urgent area of research are desperately needed,” she said.

This is the second grant awarded to Cooper to study the medicinal properties of cannabis in recent months. Last fall, she received a $3.5 million grant to research how men and women react to the pain-relieving and adverse effects of cannabinoids differently. She was named as the first research director of UCLA’s Cannabis Research Initiative in January 2019. The initiative was founded in 2017 as part of the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.