TED Talk

Demystifying Cannabis with an Engineering Mindset

By April 15, 2019 No Comments

I had the great pleasure of speaking at TEDx Drew University on March 30th. The event, held at their beautiful concert hall, was themed “Nature of Being”. In line with the introspective theme, I reached deep within to explore what it is in my nature (and nurture!) that may have propelled me into my entrepreneurial endeavor at Wholistic Research and Education Foundation and drafted my talk entitled “Demystifying Cannabis with an Engineering Mindset”. I will share the video once it is released by TED, but until then, I hope you enjoy the below write up:

I couldn’t help smiling when I walked into a natural remedy shop in London called Neil’s Yard Remedies last summer and saw these quotes written on their back wall. Plant medicine wisdom, or humor depending on our perspective—so succinctly put!

Plant Medicine Wisdom

Don’t you find it interesting and even counter-intuitive that while herbal medicine passed on for generations has helped heal humans for thousands of years, with the advent of “modern medicine”, so many people—especially doctors and scientists—have started to view it as less valuable than its lab-manufactured counterparts? And now, we appear to be coming back full circle as a society into believing in the healing power of plants again.

Over time traditional vs. modern medicine—whatever modern may have meant for that time—were pit against one another, creating an “either/or” situation: holistic healers vs. medical doctors, and now natural supplements vs. big pharma.

Plant Medicine practitioners believe nature has a cure for all ailments, pointing to thousands of years of herbal remedy traditions for treating a multitude of diseases.

Conventional doctors, on the other hand, are believers in science and technology, pointing to how modern medicine has reduced death rates for stroke, heart disease, and cancer—not to mention a slew of deadly infectious diseases—leading to a significantly higher life expectancy over the past couple of decades.

Both sides are entrenched in their world views…waging war on the belief systems and modus operendi of the other side. It is easy to demonize modern medicine as being overly-specialized and symptoms-focused—which, it is by the way—but it has also saved countless lives, including my husband’s! It is also just as easy to taint alternative medicine practitioners as snake oil salesman. Yes, some certainly may be, but again, many people do swear by how alternative treatments are what saved them when even modern medicine couldn’t help. Both sides make valid points and back it up with data.

So why then do we make it an “either / or” situation? Why is there such dichotomy between these two approaches when many already believe both need to co-exist?

Not only do I agree, but I up the ante by saying I believe it is modern science and medicine that has the power to start demystifying, and thus validating, the magic of plant medicine. That is how we can begin to understand just how alternative therapies work for specific conditions, and why they may work better for some people than others.

In essence, this is what’s at the heart of our mission at our relatively new public charity I co-founded, Wholistic Research and Education Foundation. Wholistic is a California non-profit, dedicated to exploring if, how, and why CBD can benefit certain health conditions and leveraging this research-driven, evidence-based data for education and advocacy.

As you likely know, CBD is emerging as the latest wellness craze, a miracle medicine of sorts that reportedly helps countless conditions. Both anecdotal and scientific reports, including the World Health Organization and the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, indicate CBD may indeed hold a therapeutic promise for numerous serious conditions, ranging from epilepsy, psychosis and Alzheimer’s to insomnia, anxiety and chronic pain. And, Americans appear to be listening as more than 7% of US adults were reported to be using CBD as a supplement as of December 2018. This number is expected to rise to 12% by the end of 2019, underscoring the massive green rush we are experiencing.

CBD’s broad range of health benefits may be due to its anti-inflammatory, anti-anxiety, anti-oxidative and neuro protective properties. However, while many people do swear by CBD, it has no noticeable effect on others. Basically, there still is not enough data to demonstrate just how CBD may be therapeutic for so many conditions or why it is more effective for some people than it is for others.

But I am neither a doctor nor holistic healer. So, why you may ask, I am  talking about all this, and why did I start a non-profit to explore how and why CBD may be beneficial? It is because it is in my nature to be curious and analytical. It’s because I’ve personally experienced the benefits of CBD, but I have also known others who simply didn’t experience a difference. Because as an engineer and entrepreneur who’s had a long career in big data and analytics, when faced with lots of data I cannot help but ask questions about trends and correlations to see if we can establish patterns and uncover causal relationships. It is because I have a need to follow the breadcrumbs of potential evidence to wherever they may lead me.

I am also sure where I am from and how I was raised has had a significant influence in my thinking. I am from Istanbul, the city that bridges two continents, Europe and Asia, and many cultures over millennia. I have personally witnessed the magic of plant medicine as a child, typically in the form of various teas and other concoctions my grandmother would prepare for me when I didn’t feel well. They worked! I do have faith in the power of the old. However, I also very much embody the new in many ways, least of which as a US-educated engineer, and a serial tech entrepreneur. Faith doesn’t mean blind trust to me…rather, it propels me to persistently and creatively follow those breadcrumbs to explore their potential meaning with new thinking and new technologies to see how we can shed new light onto old beliefs. Yes, millions around the world firmly believe plant medicine works. But wouldn’t it be amazing to know just how and why those old-fashioned remedies withstood the test of time after all? What If we can decipher the underlying mechanisms that lead to the efficacy of certain plants so we have an opportunity to legitimize plant remedies such as CBD as bone fine therapies instead of dismissing them as snake oil?

This is where I firmly put my systems engineering hat on. One cannot begin to understand the parts without truly understanding the whole. I believe both a detailed bottom up and a holistic big picture view are absolutely necessary to get to the truth about the efficacy of plant medicine—and one without the other is simply an incomplete picture of reality.

This thinking manifested itself in the multi-disciplinary approach we require of all the research we fund at Wholistic. The MDs and researchers we partner with are challenged to bring together the latest in clinical, scientific, genetic and imaging techniques for a comprehensive and systematic exploration of CBD efficacy for various conditions. As a big-data geek, I don’t want to just see more clinical-only studies that indicate ‘yes CBD works for some people in the study, some of the time’ after years of controlled trials and millions of dollars. We already know much of that that from the anecdotal stories of countless patients who swear by CBD. What I want to know is WHY it works for some of the study participants and not others, as well as how it actually does the trick! Through leveraging new technologies, I want to be able to collect and analyze the many new types of data about our bodies that simply couldn’t be studied until now. I want us to be able to determine if the clinical trial participants who seem to benefit from CBD share specific traits in common such as genetic or inflammatory markers, physiological similarities in their receptor systems, or even common behaviors. I want us to be able to identify likely candidates for whom CBD can indeed deliver its magic and determine if certain traits render it more or less effective. And I really like to know we can find out if there is anything that can be done to improve the odds of its efficacy for those it appears not to help.

I also would really like us to get away from the reductionist thinking that has dominated medicine for so long. CBD is the latest craze, and everyone appears to be jumping on the bandwagon to take advantage of new “green rush” opportunities. Since the whole cannabis plant cannot be patented, pharma is naturally looking to test the efficacy of various cannabinoid isolates in hopes of creating new and profitable drugs. However, there is already preliminary data that points to higher efficacy, lower dosage and less side effects of full-spectrum CBD when compared to CBD isolates. The whole is often more than the sum of its parts, and not surprisingly, this seems be the case for the cannabis plant as well. There are hidden interactions where seemingly inactive ingredients in the plant may actually play crucially active roles in accelerating efficacy or minimizing side effects. While CBD appears as the star of the show today, it may be other “minor cannabinoids” such as CBN and CBG that may steal its thunder in the not too distant future as we continue to study how these compounds contribute to the broader health benefits of cannabis. There are just so many breadcrumbs for us to follow as we attempt to demystify cannabis with a holistic, and what I call a “systems engineering” mindset.

At the end of the day, I simply want us to pull back and realize that it is narrow-minded, deterministic thinking that created the unproductive dichotomy between alternative and modern medicine. Deterministic thinking is not scientific! We need to continually re-evaluate the old (AKA what we think we know), in the fast-evolving lens of the new as we learn not to make too many deterministic statements on what is and what is not.

Combining the old and the new, I now see my entrepreneurial journey under a new light. For me, it has always been about creating change, not just companies. But, now I realize it is also very much about being the change I want to see in the world. As my entrepreneurial career has evolved through its many twists and turns and brought me—a tech exec and proud engineer—into the maelstrom of this new wellness world, my experience, knowledge and beliefs are being tested….and are collectively calling upon me to lead with both my left and my right brain in this new chapter of my life. And I feel like I am right where I need to be.