NEW YORK – The search for substances that will cure or alleviate disease – whether they are found in nature or synthesized by scientists – is urgent and potentially lucrative. No stone is being left unturned, including once-universally banned plants like cannabis – marijuana.
The process that leads to FDA-approved medicine is long, but the hopes of many people for relief from their illness lies not only in doctors, but in entrepreneurs like Greek-Americans Thoma Kikis and Dean Petkanas. The company they started in 2010, KannaLife, undertakes both the scientific research and communication with government officials.
Kikis is motivated by the desire “to create an enterprise that is in a new space as a young Greek entrepreneur, but after prompted to do research in order to help family members who were suffering, he is committed to “helping a lot of people.”
The initial concept for the company was born of his research on how to help his cousin Dr. Steven Kazianis, melanoma researcher in his late 30s who himself was suffering from a brain tumor. Kikis was looking for alternative therapies for him and recommended he try cannabis.
A different family member suffered from hepatic encephalopathy (HE) which results from liver malfunctioning and produces Alzheimer’s like symptoms. Kikis later learned that patients can benefit from Cannabidiol (CBD), one of 85 promising chemicals, called cannabinoids, that are found in the marijuana plant. Unlike it most famous chemical, THC, CBD does not make people high.
Kikis told TNH that CBD has promise as an antioxidant and for protecting nerve cells, which should benefit people at risk from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) from injuries like concussions.
He sees CBD as a super Omega-3. “It’s very oily and binds to brain cells creating a coating effect, like a mini-helmet, protecting them.”
KannaLife’s research entails qualifying that CBD is a neuro protectant – that it protects brain cells. It is currently engaged in pre-clinical tests with neuronal cells and glial cells in petri dishes at facilities in the Pennsylvania biotechnology center in Doylestown and animal behavioral and toxicology at Temple University. Company headquarters are near Huntington, NY.
They are at the end stage of the pre-clinical process and will be filing for an Investigational New Drug application (IND) with the FDA in early 2015. When it is approved, human trials can begin.
BIRTH OF A COMPANY
The idea for KannaLIfe began to form in Kikis’ mind six months after his cousin died, when he visited a dispensary in Southern California. “I saw what was happening in the industry and had an entrepreneurial brainstorm,” he said.
Kikis immediately called Petkanas, who he knew well for six years. Petkanas, who had a pharmaceutical background, told Kikis he would join him in his venture, but that the latter needed to learn about pharmaceutical sciences. Kikis readily agreed.
“We attacked two aspects of the business, he on the pharmaceutical end, and I focused on the marketing, branding and operations of the company.”
Petkanas found the U.S.-government held patent on cannabinoids and Kikis started building a team. The vision entails focusing on the science first, understanding how the plant works, and building a plant based company.
After 2 ½ years they obtained an exclusive license on a patent for all cannabinoids from the National Institutes of Health with respect to HE and CTE.
KannaLife was active it the effort to bring the medical benefits of cannabis to New York. For about three years the helped legislators understand to understand medical marijuana and how it can help patients. The discussed issues like dosage and standardization and allaying concerns about the substances ending up in the black market.
He thinks the bill that was passed is a good one but that it will evolve.
Citizens can take action by contacting their state senators and assembly members and asking to add more illness to the list. “They need to do their own research on the illnesses that concern them and point them out to their state officials. There are so many documented cases out there where it helps…it takes residents of New York state to stand up and say ‘I have this illness and I need this.” That’s how the whole campaign started and resulted in the legislation,” he told TNH.
They are also working to educate football players and anybody who has had a concussion, for which they believe CBD is a solution. Ex-football star Marvin Washington is now a spokesman and advisor of KannaLife.
Both of Kikis’ parents are from Epiros and he and his two younger brothers were active at St. Demetrios. He studied film and communications at NYU and after graduating helped redesign MTV.com’s website. He also felt privileged to have worked in Greece with some of its top film directors. He co-produced and raised funds for and the award-winning film Alps after meeting Yorgos Lanthimos at a café in New York.