[Editor’s Note: Welcome to Lab Notes, Manna Molecular’s new blog exploring the ever-changing world of cannabis. Here, you’ll find exclusive insights from key thinkers and scientists in the space, industry news, and ruminations on the future in bloom, as well as the latest updates, innovations, and products from right here in the Manna-sphere—tools, we believe, to lead your best self-cared-for life.]
When the little blue pill hit the market in 1998, it changed the lives of millions of men struggling with erectile dysfunction. Dr. Harin Padma-Nathan remembers it well. As a longtime professor of urology at USC and lead principal investigator for ViagraⓇ, he oversaw the clinical trials and published it in the New England Journal of Medicine, all of which paved the way for the drug’s FDA approval, whose overnight eruption across news media and late-night routines began deflating the stigma of a condition that today hardly elicits a blush.
All the while, the void in Venus remained. “The unmet societal need was for women,” he says. “And women are far more complex than men, thus the drug therapies out there didn’t seem to be very effective.” In other words, challenge accepted. Seeing some strides—and roadblocks—in the chemistry of cannabis products in this area, he got to work developing his own.
Now, as Manna’s chief medical officer, Padma-Nathan is on the cusp of a breakthrough that could prove as girthy a discovery as the little blue pill was for men: Vella, a new line of CBD and THC sexual lubricants shown to amplify arousal and orgasms in women.
Here, he phones in from his office in LA to chat about what he’s working on, his life away from the microscope and the outer limits of scientific inquiry.
Your work on ViagraⓇ and CialisⓇ has been covered in The New York Times, LA Times, 20/20 and Nova. What has been your most memorable moment to date? I think one of the most interesting things was the first time I realized that ViagraⓇ was really a game changer. When these men took ViagraⓇ they were having normal erections again and that was mind-blowing. One of those eureka moments was when I had a patient who’d had a radical prostatectomy coming back and telling me this stuff is really working.
How did the idea for Vella come about? I noticed that there was some activity in the cannabis space looking at delivering THC and CBD by topical applications and the problem is that they’re typically in coconut oil, which ruptures condoms almost instantly. But I wondered what CBD did, and the problem was in the low absorption that one has with oil compounds, plus they don’t dissolve in aqueous solutions. But I knew, nanotechnologically, liposomes were a great way to make a fatty compound like CBD live in a stable, enclosed, or encapsulated, water-soluble environment, which would also make it condom-compatible. So I began working with a number of approaches to develop the kinds of liposomes to do this.
What do nanoencapsulated liposomes do exactly? Nanoencapsulation increases the bioavailability, and the liposomes are made with the same lining you find on cell walls, so what happens is these liposomes are attached to the cell wall, in this case at the labia, clitoris, and the distal vagina, and they’re actively absorbed, so the drug goes into the cell and is immediately passed to the cell next to it, which is the smooth muscle cell, and that’s where the drug works. The common problem with liposomes in a lot of treatments is they’re very tiny and usually unstable, so they don’t last a long time, and most importantly, they don’t carry a large payload. So, I developed large, multilamellar (multicompartmental, if you will) liposomes that were 1,000 times bigger to carry a large payload.
What does that mean for what women can expect to feel when using Vella? Women who have some degree of desire should see an increase in lubrication, clitoral engorgement and increased orgasm, increased time spent in orgasm and increased frequency of orgasm. But unlike other stuff out there, we’ve done studies to show this. We’ve studied isolated rodent vaginal tissue and demonstrated, for the first time, a dose-response to CBD with increasing smooth muscle relaxation to increasing doses of CBD. This is an unexpected, novel pharmacological response necessary for female sexual arousal. We’ve used vaginal plethysmography to show changes in blood flow to the vagina, in response to Vella, which causes arousal. We’ve also tested to make sure it is condom compatible. And lastly, we’ve used an at-home questionnaire to explore real-world experience with Vella, which is how the FDA does it too. At the end of the day, it’s all about their arousal, their orgasm, their satisfaction. While we can show a blood flow increase and smooth muscle relaxation, none of that means anything unless patients themselves experience a positive effect in those areas.
When you’re not knee-deep in work, what do you like to do? My great passion is skiing. You know that every Sri Lankan skis right?
I did not know that! (Laughs) Well, I might be the only one. Like the Jamaican bobsled team, I’m a Sri Lankan ski team member.
If you weren’t doing what you do now, what could you see yourself doing? Today we drive our kids to things that make money like finance and maybe entertainment or whatever, which is big in LA, but I couldn’t ever see myself doing that. I love numbers and math. And I like people and I like biology. The other thing I really like is astrophysics.
Oh really? What about it interests you? Yeah. I’ve become interested in quantum mechanics just because of the quirkiness of it, but what I really like is astrophysics—the science of black holes and neutron stars and that stuff. The bizarreness of quantum mechanics becomes the bizarreness of how science changes when you start to approach a black hole. And at the end of the day, that’s all really about the function of god to me. It is just the beginning, the end of the universe, multiverse, whatever, and to me that sort of borders on the meaning of life.
That’s fascinating. When we encounter these phenomena that threaten to break our understanding of science and physics, they could reorient what our beliefs are. Yeah. God is physics, physics isn’t god. It’s a concept that we understand so little of and it’s so confusing. Newtonian physics applies to some stuff on the earth, and relativity applies to a lot of stuff, but when you try to bridge quantum mechanics and relativity, quantum mechanics is like a bizarre trip. It’s so fascinating and unusual to try to blend the two with string theory…but at the end of the day, it’s all about trying to understand the bigger picture. We’re so consumed by our own little world, and it’s just a small part of everything out there.