Jack Rivers

Jack Rivers

When you hear the phrase “giving marijuana to disabled babies” something along the lines of “child abuse” probably springs to mind. Not for Jack Rivers though. For three years Rivers has been working on his PhD here at the University of Otago, researching how marijuana-like substances could be used to treat brain-damaged infants.

Somewhat fittingly, I spent my 4:20 on the phone to Rivers to chat about his research, I in the Nev, he from back home in Christchurch. Rivers has just taken up a full-time post-doctorate position at the Otago University Pathology Department while he wraps up the final stages of his thesis.

Last August, Rivers won the Otago Uni Three Minute Thesis Competition (3MT) where contestants compact years of doctorate research into a three-minute presentation with the help of just one static slide. He went on to be a crowd favourite in the Australasian competition, securing the People’s Choice Award.

Rivers believes that competitions that simplify science like the 3MT are crucial for bringing scientific research into public discourse. “I think that one of the biggest things slowing down humanity’s advancements is ignorance of what the research is,” says Rivers. “The research is not available at all and it’s because this knowledge is being owned rather than shared, and so it’s creating ignorance and separation between those who know and who don’t know, and it means that charlatans like homeopathists and chiropractors can still operate.”

Rivers completed his BSc in Anatomy at Otago and followed up with a post-graduate diploma in Botany, saying that, “my basic logic behind it was that I didn’t like the smell of dead bodies, and in anatomy we had to cut up dead bodies every week. And I was like ‘plants smell delicious when you chop them up’, so I switched.”

Backed by a scholarship, Rivers decided on Pharmacology as his PhD department and began searching for a thesis topic. With the aim of treating disease in mind he found an appealing combo in botany and neuroscience, eventually leading him down the avenue of medical marijuana and kickstarting the three-year slog of “slave-labour” thesis research.

Historically, using marijuana to medicate is nothing new. Back around 1500BC the Ancient Egyptians used it to treat eye sores, and even shelved it to relieve pain from hemorrhoids. Fast forward more than a thousand years to 200BC and the Greeks would soak the seeds in water or wine and after removing them use the warm liquid extract to remedy inflammation and earaches. And in 200AD, Chinese surgeons could be found mixing cannabis resin with wine and administering it to patients as an anaesthetic before going under the knife.
Those of you who spend the odd Sunday “self-medicating” to ensure last night’s undigested Tequila Sunrise/2am Boss burger doesn’t make a surprise guest appearance out your mouth are probably familiar with marijuana’s nausea- and pain-suppressant effects. But Rivers’s focus is on its ability to suppress the immune system.

Rivers’s research looks to treat the 1 in 400 foetuses whose umbilical cord becomes wrapped around its neck during birth, causing the cord to kink and prevent blood-flow from reaching the foetus. As the umbilical chord is the lifeline, the baby’s brain then begins to die quickly in a way very similar to a stroke. The problem is further complicated by the next stage of brain damage, occurring over the course of days or even weeks as the immune system rushes a response into the brain, causing swelling and inflammation, and producing a bunch of other toxic compounds.

Using this correlation of stroke victims and brain-damaged infants, Rivers would induce strokes in baby rats then administer marijuana-like substances to some in order to suppress their immune system, reducing subsequent damage to the brain – kind of like how you put ice on a twisted ankle to stop it swelling up more.

Over the last three years of research his findings have been phenomenal, showing a 39% decrease in brain damage to the rats that were given these marijuana-like substances. According to Rivers, “this could be the difference between being able to speak and not, move your right arm and not, the difference between life and death.”

Despite images that may have already formed in your brain of Rivers hitting bowls in the lab, his scientific research does not involve smoking nug. In fact, these marijuana-like substances that he has been trialling on rats are specifically designed not to get you high – pretty crucial really when you consider the fact that his subjects are babies. “We’re talking about developing brains here, so we took the molecule and changed it in a way that would prevent it from activating the receptors in the brain.”
Being lumped in with recreational users and the legalisation movement is one of the frustrations Rivers has to deal with in researching a plant with such a stigma around it. Of these misconceptions, he says, “it’s mostly the general public that do it. It’s not other scientists, other scientists fully understand it … I mean I did an interview with Radio1 and my introduction song was ‘Hits From the Bong’ by Cypress Hill. And so that’s not good for your professional career I guess.”

Actually, Rivers doesn’t support the legalisation of marijuana at all. “It’s more of a personal belief than a professional belief but I just think that introducing more substances that can alter your brain to the free-market is not a good thing, and drugs have shown time and time again not to work on the free-market … If drugs can alter your choice mechanism then it’s not increasing your freedom of choice, it’s suppressing your freedom of choice.”

“I don’t think we want to end up in a place like California that has legalised it medicinally, and for things it really shouldn’t be legalised for like depression and migraines … they’ve opened the door an inch and it’s just exploded to the point where marijuana is fully legal.”

Rivers draws parallels between opium and marijuana, saying that both have been used for thousands of years medicinally but have been made illegal because they get you high. Yet by extracting the active ingredients from opium and synthesising them doctors have produced crucial pain relief medicines such as Codeine and Morphine, as well as chemicals that slow down the intestines. “The doctor is never going to go and say ‘go smoke some opium’ – that’s a ridiculous concept. He’s going to prescribe certain amounts that will maximise the positive effects and minimise the negative effects. So that’s the future of medicinal marijuana.”

At the moment medical marijuana is available in the form of Sativex, a spray made out of active ingredients of marijuana that goes under the tongue. However it is currently only being prescribed to patients with Multiple Sclerosis.
And any pharmaceutical product from Rivers’ research is a long way off. “It could be between ten years, twenty years, it could be never that this stroke gets tested in humans. And one of the things that’s really tough about being a PhD student is that when you start you think ‘I’m gonna cure something, it’s gonna be amazing,’ and then by the time you’ve finished you’re like ‘I’m just a drop in a bucket, and you need 10 litres of research before it might get tested
in humans.’”

So will Rivers be joining the exodus of post-grads in search for bigger dollars? Luckily, post-doctorate research in New Zealand is some of the highest paying in the world. “They say if you go to America or Europe, you’re going to be poor … Aussies do pay slightly better, but only slightly, so it’s almost not worth it to be with scummy old Australians.”

So for now Rivers is staying with researching at Otago’s Pathology Department. “I see myself getting into a media role as well, coz I do like spreading the science.” Like a Mormom, I suggest to Rivers – but with facts. “Yeah, just going door to door.”

You can find out more info on Jack Rivers and watch his Three Minute Thesis at
This article first appeared in Issue 10, 2012.
Posted 12:51am Monday 7th May 2012 by Rebecca Rutherford.