Ultimate Fighting Championship athletes will serve as test subjects to find out if the cannabis compound CBD can treat the aches and pains that come hand in hand with their violent sport.
The research is part of a partnership between the professional mixed martial arts league and Canadian company Aurora Cannabis. Aurora and the UFC plan to conduct clinical trials on the use of cannabidiol, commonly known as CBD, in elite athletes and then employ the results to develop a line of hemp-derived CBD topical treatments targeting elite athletes.
Aurora and UFC officials say they hope the studies will show the effectiveness of CBD and specific formulations of the compound in areas such as wound care, recovery, injury, pain and inflammation.
The efforts would be first of their kind in the research of how elite athletes could potentially benefit from cannabis or cannabis-derived compounds, according to Dr. Jeff Chen, director of UCLA’s Cannabis Research Initiative. The subject is an increasingly hot one in professional sports leagues.
Organizations of current and former athletes — including cannabis activist group Athletes For CARE and the National Football League Players Association, the union that represents NFL players — have called for leagues to allow cannabis-based alternatives to addictive painkillers.
Earlier this year, the NFL and the NFLPA agreed to explore studying the pain management effects of cannabis.
For now even taking CBD, which is not psychoactive, would be a problem for NFL players. The risk involved with taking the non-psychoactive CBD products is that they can contain some trace amounts of THC, which could trigger a potential suspension, said former NFL player Nate Jackson, who is a member of Athletes for CARE.
“It’s hard to regulate this industry in a way that makes athletes comfortable with what they’re putting in their bodies,” Jackson said during a panel on cannabis use in athletes at the Cannabis Business Summit & Expo Thursday hosted by the National Cannabis Industry Association.
Dr. Chen, who is not involved in the Aurora-UFC research, spoke to CNN Business following the Cannabis Business Summit athlete-focused panel, which he moderated.
The structure of the study is right out of the “Pharma textbook,” in which a company designs a study, supplies the product for research and provides funding, Chen said. However, firms typically contract out the research itself to a third-party such as a university, if they want to garner US Food and Drug Administration approval.
“It’s not uncommon to see this of companies [that] are just going for one study to have the marketing to back up a nutraceutical product,” he said, referencing dietary supplements that are fairly unregulated.
The studies will be conducted to the highest scientific, safety and ethical standards, Jason Dyck, Ph.D., the chair of Aurora’s Global Scientific Oversight Committee, said. The results will go through an independent ethics review and a peer review process and be submitted for review and publication in a leading scientific journals, Dyck said. The selection of the journals will be dependent upon the area of research, an Aurora spokesperson said.
Dyck, a University of Alberta cardiovascular research scientist who joined Aurora’s board in 2015, will lead the studies with Kelly Narine, Ph.D., Aurora’s vice president of global research and medical affairs, and a team of sports performance researchers at the UFC Performance Institute in Las Vegas.
Based on CBD research that’s been conducted to-date, Dyck is optimistic Aurora and UFC’s efforts will lead not just to one study and one product but to multiple studies and multiple products.
“I think there are far, far-reaching applications,” he said.
About 30 UFC athletes have expressed interest in volunteering for the study, a UFC spokesperson told CNN Business.
“Collaborating with Aurora is the best way to educate ourselves and our fighters about the impact of CBD on MMA athletes and our sport,” Dr. Duncan French, UFC’s vice president of performance, said in a statement. “We want to apply science and see where it leads us. Ideally, these studies will give us the clarity we need to determine the effectiveness of hemp-derived CBD on athlete health and injury recovery.”
Of the professional sports leagues, the UFC has been one of the most cannabis-friendly, said Frank Shamrock, a retired MMA fighter who was on the Cannabis Business Summit panel.
It’s a newer league and, as such, a bit more experimental than more established competitors, he told CNN Business in an interview.
The research structure — led by private enterprise with a product in mind — is not an ideal solution to fully advance research into cannabis and athletes, Anna Symonds, a professional rugby player and cannabis advocate who was also on the panel, told CNN Business. But when cannabis research is hamstrung by marijuana’s status as a substance illegal under federal law, it’s a start, she said.