While Pfizer Inc. has become ubiquitous among those receiving COVID-19 vaccines, the American multinational pharmaceutical and biotechnology company is now betting on the cannabis industry.

Last week, Pfizer announced it entered into a definitive agreement to acquire clinical-stage company Arena Pharmaceuticals Inc. to the tune of $6.7 billion, with a transaction valued at $100 per Arena share in cash.

The press release for the proposed transaction omits any direct mention of Arena’s ties to the medical cannabis industry, but that pipeline is connected to cannabinoid therapeutics with an aim to help treat bowel disease, as reported by Forbes.

According to Arena’s website, Olorinab is a drug candidate for the treatment of pain and is a “full agonist of the cannabinoid Type 2 receptor (CB2).” CB2 is an endocannabinoid receptor predominately associated with immune system responses. Among its active ingredients Olorinab includes the drug SR144528, which has been used to study the function of the CB2 receptor.

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Arena’s initial focus for Olorinab is on treating visceral pain associated with gastrointestinal disorders. An oral form of Olorinab is currently in a Phase 2 clinical trial evaluating its efficacy and safety in patients experiencing abdominal pain associated with irritable bowel syndrome, according to the company website.  

Olorinab, through its selectivity for the CB2 receptor versus cannabinoid Type 1 receptor (CB1), remains under trials for pain relief without psychoactive adverse effects and is not currently approved for use by any health authority. While the CB1 receptor is associated with psychoactive, neuromodulatory and analgesic effects due to its activation by THC, CB2 is associated with anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory effects but not psychoactive effects.

Compounds found in cannabis, such as THC and CBD, can bind to both receptor types to signal that the endocannabinoid system needs to act, but the effects depend on the receptor and the cannabinoid’s interaction with the receptor.

According to an introduction of the endocannabinoid system by Dr. Ethan Russo, a board-certified neurologist who’s studied cannabis and cannabinoids for more than 25 years, “Receptors may be thought of as locks, to which a corresponding chemical (natural or synthetic) will fit like a key, if it has the proper structure to conform to it.”

Mike Gladstone, global president and general manager of Inflammation and Immunology at Pfizer, did not did specifically mention Olorinab in the acquisition announcement, but the press release did state that Arena’s portfolio includes diverse and promising development-stage therapeutic candidates in gastroenterology, among other branches of medicine. Arena’s portfolio also includes non-cannabinoid clinical avenues.

“The proposed acquisition of Arena complements our capabilities and expertise in Inflammation and Immunology, a Pfizer innovation engine developing potential therapies for patients with debilitating immuno-inflammatory diseases with a need for more effective treatment options,” Gladstone said.

Pfizer expects to finance the transaction with existing cash on hand, according to the release. Under the terms of the agreement, Pfizer will acquire all of the outstanding shares of Arena common stock for $100 per share in cash. 

Upon completion of the deal, Pfizer will join the likes of other big pharma companies in the cannabis space, such as Jazz Pharmaceuticals, which kicked off the 2021 international cannabis M&A season with a $7.2-billion blockbuster deal to acquire GW Pharmaceuticals, manufacturer of the FDA- and DEA-approved Epidiolex (a cannabinoid medicine used for treating children who experience seizures associated with two rare forms of epilepsy).

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