Professor Michelle Glass has recently taken up the role of Head of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology. Photo: Sharron Bennett.
Recent media publicity about the huge spike in the number of people dying from synthetic cannabis is of no surprise to the new Head of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Professor Michelle Glass.
In recent years her research interest on the expression, function and molecular pharmacology of cannabinoid receptors has extended to identifying the mechanism by which synthetic cannabinoids are resulting in high levels of toxicity in the community.
“I have been part of a research team working with ESR to try and understand why the synthetic cannabis products are so dangerous,” Professor Glass explains.
Provisional figures from the coroner just released to media recently show between 40 to 45 people died in the year since last June – in the previous five years there were two confirmed deaths.
Prior to the release of the figures, Professor Glass says she was aware of at least 20 people in Auckland alone who died from using synthetic cannabis which includes a deadly chemical AMB-FUBINACA.
"I suspect there are plenty more people being adversely affected by these drugs ... I suspect the problems are a lot more widespread."
“The deaths appear to be the tip of the iceberg,” she says.
“I suspect there are plenty more people being adversely affected by these drugs - if you accounted for everyone who turned up in emergency departments or with psychiatric problems, I suspect the problems are a lot more widespread.”
Professor Glass is hoping the work she and her colleagues are doing will make a difference.
“Right now there is no emergency room protocol around dealing with synthetic cannabis, other than to deal with the symptoms. If you can deal with the mechanism, there may be some already existing drugs that could be useful.”
The New Zealand Drug Foundation has put a lot of work into discouraging people from using synthetic cannabis, but Professor Glass says it does not seem to be working. The fact synthetic cannabis is cheap could be a factor, but she also questions whether the drugs are more addictive than cannabis.
“Some of the science suggests people don't enjoy it, but keep doing it.”
Her contributions to the field have been acknowledged by an early career award from the International Cannabinoid Research Society in 2009 and by election to President of this society.
The molecular pharmacologist has spent the past 18 years working at the University of Auckland where she was Head of the Department of Pharmacology and last year appointed Professor of Pharmacology.
She has enjoyed her time at the University, but says the time was right for a change in work and life balance with a growing family. Ironically, she has returned to the department where her working career began 23 years ago.
Professor Glass jokes that she initially talked her way into a job at the University of Otago's Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology as Assistant Lecturer in February 1995, when the department was short-staffed, after meeting then Head of Department, Dick Laverty at a function.
Her initial stint at Otago was brief as she took up a fellowship in the United States the following year. She worked as a postdoctoral Fellow in the Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Regulation at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland for 18 months before moving on to work as a Visiting Fellow in the Laboratory of Cell Biology at the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communications Disorders in Rockville, Maryland.
"I've worked on and off with the department for years; I know they are a very enthusiastic group of teachers and scientists, so I'm excited about where we can go."
Professionally, the experiences she gained in the United States were invaluable and she undertook some interesting work.
“It was how to do science when money is no boundary,” she smiles.
Returning to New Zealand, Professor Glass's initial research focus was on the potential role of cannabinoid receptors in the treatment of neurodegenerative diseases like Huntington's disease.
Summarising the findings, she explains that people with Huntington's disease lose the cannabinoid receptor from their brain quite early in the disease process and her team's work suggested that cannabis-based medicines were not likely to be effective in the treatment of that disease. There has been one clinical trial since then that supports that finding.
Currently, the Government is going through the Health Select Committee process around developing a medicinal cannabis framework. Professor Glass is a member of the Medical Cannabis Research Collaborative (NZ), which aims to ensure robust clinical research of medical cannabis products in New Zealand is undertaken. It will also set informal standards for the development and testing of medical cannabis products, as well as increasing understanding and the base of evidence for or against the use of medical cannabis products in specific clinical conditions.
She acknowledges it is an interesting time with change potentially in the wind with so many countries legalising cannabis.
“I think it's important that the science keeps up with the public debate.”
Professor Glass has barely got her feet under the desk, but is excited about what the future holds for her team.
“I've worked on and off with the department for years; I know they are a very enthusiastic group of teachers and scientists, so I'm excited about where we can go.”