The National Institute on Drug Abuse awarded the University of Florida a $3.2-million grant to study the health effects of cannabis on patients who have HIV. The new study, which will commence in January 2018, will be led by UF Health’s Robert Cook, M.D., M.P.H.
Currently, participants are being selected and interviewed. Dr. Cook and his team have also recently visited local clinics in order to talk to potential participants.
It is believed that the study is the largest research to date on marijuana and HIV. It will seek to identify relationships between the consumption of cannabis and the control of HIV symptoms, the markers of chronic inflammation, the HIV viral suppression, and the behavioral and cognitive aspects of health.
Over a period of five years, the researchers will follow around 400 Florida-based HIV patients who use cannabis medically or recreationally. They will also keep track of 100 HIV patients who are not using cannabis at all. The researchers will not provide the cannabis to be used by the participants, but will only monitor their use.
The study was approved for funding after two earlier study proposals have been denied. The NIDA study grant came after Florida’s Amendment 2 was approved, allowing citizens with serious diseases, including HIV, to have legal access to medical cannabis. Amendment 2 took effect in January this year.
While there may be evidence that cannabis can help improve symptoms associated with HIV, its health effects have not yet been scientifically investigated. Cannabis use has become increasingly common among people living with HIV infection, but past findings related to the health impact of cannabis use on HIV have been very limited and inconclusive, Dr. Cook said.
The research team hopes to provide answers to questions regarding the health effects, as well as to the potential of cannabis as an alternative to opioids.
According to Dr. Cook, the main questions they will be asking in their research pertain to what HIV patients are currently using as treatment for their condition and whether this is helping them.
The research team will track the quantity of cannabis consumed, the methods of consumption, the cannabinoid content, and the frequency of use. The data collected will be used to identify patterns in symptom management, as well as to determine how the virus gets expressed in the body.
According to a 2015 study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Florida has the third-highest number of HIV-infected residents. CDCP’s HIV Surveillance report also found the state to have the highest rate of new HIV infections annually.
Moreover, about 30 per cent of HIV patients surveyed across Florida use cannabis in any form. Most of those who admit to using weed claim that it helps them manage their symptoms, including pain, stress, anxiety, sleeping problems, and nausea. About 70 per cent of cannabis-using HIV patients reported some health benefits.
Dr. Cook also noted that 50 per cent of HIV-positive Florida residents are now aged 50 and above. This means that there are a lot of older patients who currently use cannabis or are at least considering using it. This also means that there isn’t a lot of information about what happens to these older patients.
The research team
Dr. Cook is a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the UF College of Medicine and the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions. He is also the director of the university’s Southern HIV and Alcohol Research Consortium (SHARC) – Center for Translational HIV Research. He is also the current chairperson of the Florida Consortium for HIV/AIDS Research (FCHAR).
Study collaborators from across UF Health are scientists with expertise in cognition, substance use, toxicology, and biostatistics. These include Babette Brumback, Ph.D.; Linda B. Cottler, Ph.D., M.P.H.; Ronald Cohen, Ph.D.; and Bruce Goldberger, Ph.D.