Jonathan Gilbert’s oldest son, Jake, a senior at the Wheatley School, started a nonprofit to support Tourette syndrome research after his younger brother, Kane, was diagnosed with the disease at age 3.
But the Roslyn Heights father and former venture capitalist said he’s interested in developing a treatment himself using an unexpected drug — cannabis.
Gilbert is the CEO of Scythian Biosciences, a company based in Canada that’s currently conducting a trial of a drug that uses cannabidiol, the main non-psychoactive chemical in marijuana, to treat concussions and other traumatic brain injuries.
Gilbert raised more than $16 million to fund the study at the University of Miami in Florida, with the hope of eventually getting the drug approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration.
But a treatment for Tourette might be the company’s next project, Gilbert said.
“It’s certainly something I’m looking toward in the future as we grow bigger and get more drugs in the pipeline,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert started Scythian in June 2014 after working for about 25 years as an investment adviser. The firm started with a medical marijuana business in Canada, and then turned to drug development, Gilbert said.
The company has an “all-star team” of scientists and researchers that developed the new patent-pending drug, Gilbert said. That was crucial as he moved from finance into medicine, he said.
“This is a completely foreign world to me, so my support staff is much more important when you delve into a world like this than it would be in any other industry,” Gilbert said. “So I’m learning as I go, or I’m building the plane as I fly it, so to speak.”
In the five-year study, supported by the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine and its Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, involves testing the drug on rodents and a small group of human patients before moving into a three-year clinical trial with FDA oversight, according to a university news release in November.
The drug would be the first to help reduce inflammation in the brain after a concussion by targeting two different brain receptors using two cannibinoid drugs, Gilbert said. Currently, doctors can only prescribe rest to treat such injuries.
“Basically, studies like this will lead us to new treatments and new standard treatments that we may be able to use, not only for concussion, mild brain injury, but for other neurological conditions,” Gillian Hotz, a neurological surgery professor at the Miller School of Medicine, said in a video about the study last year.
The study has been endorsed by the National Football League Alumni and the World Boxing Association, Gilbert said.
Gilbert’s interest in cannabis-based medicines grew after Kane’s Tourette syndrome diagnosis, he said.
Gilbert and his wife, Keren, started attending support groups to learn more about the disease. Some teenagers in those groups had an unconventional way of keeping their symptoms under control, Gilbert said: “They would put their fingers to their lips and indicate that they’re smoking weed.”
There’s only anecdotal evidence that cannabis effectively treats Tourette syndrome, Gilbert said, so doctors have not used it to treat Kane, now 8.
“They’re not there yet,” Gilbert said. “I suspect that is eventually going to become a means of their support and their advice, but for now, because it’s not completely mainstreamed, they have not prescribed it.”