GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The University of Florida has received funding in the form of a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to help support an extensive new study on marijuana's health effects in those who suffer from HIV infection.
The $3.2 million NIDA grant awarded to UF Health will go towards helping the study's lead investigator Dr. Robert Cook find an answer to the question of whether marijuana realistically helps improve HIV-related symptoms.
Of the 13 "qualifying medical conditions" outlined in Senate Bill 8A, a positive status for human immunodeficiency virus was included on the list of those which would allow a person in the State of Florida to legally acquire and consume medical marijuana.
However, there is "limited evidence" that cannabis and cannabinoids found in marijuana are effective in increasing appetite and decreasing weight loss most commonly associated with HIV, according to the Florida Board of Medicine.
The board's statements regarding the effectiveness of cannabis in treating a qualifying condition are listed in the medical marijuana consent form. The form is legally required to be filled out by all physicians before treating a patient with medical marijuana.
“Marijuana use is increasingly common in persons living with HIV infection," said Cook, director of UF's Southern HIV and Alcohol Research Consortium. "Yet, past findings regarding the health impact of marijuana use on HIV have been limited and inconclusive."
Cook is a professor of epidemiology and medicine at UF's College of Public Health and Health Professions and UF's College of Medicine. Cook and other members of the Southern HIV and Alcohol Research Consortium have published more than a dozen HIV-related studies in the past year.
Cook explains that the long-term goal of this new study is to help provide patients, physicians and public health authorities with the necessary information needed to "guide clinical and safety recommendations for marijuana use."
In addition to a host of other sexually transmitted diseases found to be increasing in Florida, the state has the third-highest number of residents living with HIV infection in the U.S., according to a 2015 study conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
According to the AIDSVu project, there were 4,849 new diagnosis of HIV in Florida for 2015. The rate of infection per 100,000 people was 28.
The five-year study conducted by the University of Florida will follow 400 Floridians with HIV who admit to current marijuana use, whether recreational or medicinal. Researcher partners from both the University of South Florida and Florida International University will be involved in the study.
Researchers will primarily conduct neurocognitive testing on HIV participants to help evaluate the behavioral effects that marijuana has on the brain, according to UF Health. Other participant responses including medication adherence, planning, chronic inflammation and viral suppression will be monitored.
“Marijuana contains a range of cannabinoid components, each of which could affect HIV health outcomes positively or negatively,” Cook said.
Participant outcomes will be recorded and separated into two groups: those who use marijuana recreationally and those who are prescribed it for medicinal purposes. The long-term use of opioids by HIV participants will also be monitored by UF Health researchers.
UF Health has said the study will track the quantity, frequency and cannabinoid content of marijuana used by participants in an effort to "identify patterns of use most strongly associated with control of patient symptoms, such as pain, stress and sleep problems."
“We expect the study to contribute to clinical and public health guidelines, while also addressing knowledge gaps about how much marijuana is ‘too much’ and how the effects of marijuana may be different in older individuals,” said Cook.
UF Health has said they believe this study to be the largest and most comprehensive ever to focus on the health effects of marijuana in people with HIV.
Due to the classification and scheduling of marijuana on a federal level, funding for potential research has been bleak. However, Gov. Rick Scott's approval of the most recent medical marijuana bill has paved a path for future research in Florida.
Pursuant to Florida Statute 1004,4351, the Coalition for Medical Marijuana Research and Education is established inside the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute in Tampa for the purpose of conducting "rigorous scientific research, provide education, disseminate research, and guide policy for the adoption of a statewide policy on ordering and dosing practices for the medical use of marijuana."