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Brainstorm Health: Marijuana Health Effects, Biogen Ionis Deal, Google's AI Reach

Sy Mukherjee

Happy Friday, readers. This is Sy.

Today is April 20, aka 4/20, aka a day now synonymous with entirely too many bad marijuana puns online. The infamous “stoner holiday” is one of the best known elements of the cannabis boom and, perhaps inevitably given the drug’s counter-culture reputation, invites plenty of jokes (and no small share of recriminations)—not to mention a cascade of businesses hawking deals aimed squarely at 4/20 revelers and weed enthusiasts in the face of rapidly growing cannabis sales as more states legalize it for medical and recreational use.

These recent regulatory, political, business, and even scientific shifts in key stakeholders’ attitudes toward marijuana make 2018 a fascinating moment in the debate over the plant. And a key question that many Americans ask is: What are marijuana’s actual health effects?

The research into this field is still ongoing, especially given the logistical issues of investigating a substance with such an evolving legal status. But a number of recent developments (including in the last few days alone) suggest marijuana can, in fact, be medically beneficial—and that lawmakers are catching on to that possibility.

A Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisory panel gave a resounding recommendation to GW Pharmaceuticals’ cannabis-based medicine Epidiolex on Thursday. The decision wasn’t even close—the expert group of panelists described the treatment, derived from the non-THC cannabis component cannabidiol (CBD) and meant to treat rare childhood epilepsy disorders, as a “breakthrough” to treat a horrible disease. The unanimous committee vote almost assures the FDA will approve the therapy as the first-ever marijuana-based drug in the U.S., likely by June.

Also on Thursday, Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer endorsed federal marijuana decriminilization. Last week, former Republican House Speaker and (until now) career-long marijuana antagonist John Boehner joined the board of marijuana cultivation company Acreage Holdings. Boehner specifically cited medical marijuana’s potential to treat veterans’ PTSD and chronic pain as a common sense way of addressing the opioid epidemic.

Then again, it’s possible these changes are at least somewhat rooted in lawmakers seeing the writing on the political wall. 30 states and the District of Columbia have broadly legalized the use of cannabis in some shape or form, and eight states, plus DC, have fully legalized marijuana. There are billions of dollars at stake in the burgeoning business.

But other independent scientific bodies (including the panel of FDA experts who endorsed Epidiolex) have also noted potential marijuana health benefits while still cautioning against its risks. One of the most comprehensive reports on the issue to date was a massive National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine study released in January 2017. It’s a checkered analysis, and some conclusions carry more certainty than others.

For instance, cannabis products probably do, based on current evidence, help treat chronic pain, prevent nausea in cancer patients under chemotherapy, and improve patient-reported outcomes for muscle problems in people with certain diseases, according to the report. There’s moderate evidence it can help certain kinds of patients sleep better. On the other hand, inhaled marijuana isn’t the best for the lungs, especially over the long term, and smoking cannabis while pregnant may be associated with lower birth weight. Driving while intoxicated in any way is also a recipe for possibly tragedy and there’s also some evidence that heavy marijuana use may exacerbate the possibility of a psychiatric episode in people who are at-risk for it.

But much of this is still relatively early stage analysis. What’s clear on the still-hazy science of cannabis is that more detailed research needs to be (and probably will be) done in the coming years.

Read on for the day’s news, and have a great weekend!

DIGITAL HEALTH

Google’s reach in AI. A new deep dive from CB Insights explores its massive bet on artificial intelligence in health care. “In short, Google seems to be going after the healthcare space from every possible angle,” the group bluntly states upfront, and that “it’s leaning heavily on its expertise in AI” for the endeavor. Google parent Alphabet’s various arms (Calico, Verily, DeepMind, etc) have their reach into everything from chronic disease management to AI-informed robotic surgery technology (the latter in a partnership with Johnson & Johnson). The whole thing is worth reading. (CB Insights)

INDICATIONS

Biogen strikes $1 billion deal with Ionis. Biotech giant Biogen is expanding its partnership with Ionis, striking a $1 pre-clinical licensing and commercialization options deal for the smaller firm’s neurology diseases (including experimental treatments for Alzheimer’s and dementia). It isn’t hard to see why Biogen wants to get closer to Ionis—its existing partnership led to a the unexpectedly successful launch of a possible blockbuster spinal muscular atrophy drug Spinraza. But some are analysts wondered aloud why Biogen is stopping at a licensing deal when it’s sitting on massive pile of cash. (Reuters)

THE BIG PICTURE

Will Ronny Jackson get confirmed? President Trump surprised many when he nominated Ronny Jackson, the White House physician to three different presidents, to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs. The Washington Post dives into how that came to happen, while others report on concerns some lawmakers have about Jackson’s largely unknown views on issues like VA privatization. (Washington Post)

REQUIRED READING

Facebook Can’t Fix This Problem Alone, by Aaron Pressman

Mt. Gox and the Surprising Redemption of Bitcoin’s Biggest Villain, by Jen Wieczner

Netflix Might Buy Movie Theaters to Boost Its Oscar Chances, by Emily Price

Apple’s Cash Cow Might Be in Trouble, by Don Reisinger

Produced by Sy Mukherjee @the_sy_guy sayak.mukherjee@fortune.com
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