Cannabinoids, Clinical Pharmacology and Cancer: Highlighting Natalie Schmitz
An assistant professor of pharmacy, Schmitz joined the University of Wisconsin faculty in 2018. Her background is in clinical pharmacology – the study of drugs in humans and their clinical use – with a special focus on helping patients with movement disorders and spasticity.
“I’m really interested in transitioning my program, which previously, has been very neuro-rehabilitation focused, to neuro-oncology,” she said.
Schmitz is no stranger to cancer research. While earning her Doctor of Pharmacy degree at Drake University, she completed a hematology/oncology pharmacy rotation with the Food and Drug Administration.
Then, while working on her PhD from the University of Minnesota in experimental and clinical pharmacology, she took a unique part-time job as a medical cannabis pharmacist. While medical marijuana is legal in Minnesota, it must be dispensed by a pharmacist. The experience there complemented her work movement disorder research, but also brought her into contact with patients seeking symptomatic relief from their cancers. “Cancer associated with either severe or chronic pain or anorexic-cachexia is one of the 14 qualifying conditions for medical cannabis in Minnesota,” Schmitz said. “We worked closely with these patients to identify a cannabis regimen that would best meet their needs.”
As more states legalize marijuana for recreational and medical uses, cancer patients are increasingly inquiring about cannabis for pain relief, or products derived from cannabis, such as CBD. These cannabinoids, as they are known, are a ripe target for research, especially since past restrictions have made their study difficult. “One of my goals at the University of Wisconsin is to evaluate cannabinoid therapies for different conditions using clinical pharmacology, pharmacokinetics, and pharmacodynamics, and optimize symptomatic relief using these cannabinoids or other therapies,” Schmitz said.
In addition to that work, Schmitz is also the incoming faculty director of the Cancer Pharmacology Lab, or CPL, a campus shared service that helps cancer researchers across disciplines analyze the pharmacologic properties and effects of new drugs. The lab offers sample collection services, as well as sample analysis. “We can look at those samples and see how much drug, for example, may be in them,” Schmitz said. “We can also evaluate the pharmacokinetic profiles of these drugs, so essentially, estimating how much drug is in the body at this specific time point, how quickly is it eliminated, and how distributed throughout the body.”
The lab can also provide information on a drug’s pharmacodynamic properties or measuring the effect of a drug on the body. This is critical information in clinical trials, which seek to determine if a drug can be administered safely to humans, and if so, what dosage is acceptable. This is required before a drug can receive FDA approval.
Schmitz says her background in clinical pharmacology also gives her a unique perspective on this kind of work and allows the lab to help study investigators in sometimes unexpected ways. “We might be able to help identify other research questions or more direct ways to answer these questions, or build in some additional, informative outcomes into the protocol, for a more robust analysis,” she said.
The CPL is part of UW Carbone’s Drug Development Core, which also includes the Small Molecule Screening Facility and the Medicinal Chemistry Center. All three services exist to help researchers take discoveries made in the lab and turn them into clinic-ready treatments. This so-called translational research can be a challenging step, and often requires significant collaboration among various disciplines. Fortunately, it’s something that the UW is known for doing well. It’s also one of the things that appealed to Schmitz about working here.
“One of the things that’s amazing about UW is the openness of everyone,” she said. “You can easily cold call someone and they’d be happy to have a meeting with you and share their expertise or perspective. So it’s really just been a really warm and welcoming environment, and there’s so much innovative, collaborative research going on.”
Date Published: 06/02/2020