OXFORD, Miss. – When it comes to illicit drugs, especially marijuana, Mahmoud A. ElSohly has tests to reveal how potent they are, whether they are contaminated, from where they might have come and whether someone is using them.
When it comes to legal drugs, ElSohly has a knack for formulating new ones. His name is on 31 patents issued in this country and abroad, and on 23 more pending patents. Companies have licensed several of those formulations, which include a prophylactic treatment for poison ivy dermatitis, compounds for treating malaria and cancer, and precursors to tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, for treating a variety of conditions.
His expertise and work products have been sought by the United Nations, the White House, State Department, National Institute on Drug Abuse, other government agencies with familiar acronyms and even the Professional Football Athletic Trainers’ Association.
For this, and more, ElSohly is the sixth recipient of the University of Mississippi’s Distinguished Research and Creative Achievement Award. The award, which is sponsored by Pharmaceutics International Inc. and includes $7,500 and a plaque, was presented during UM’s main commencement ceremony Saturday (May 11) by Alice M. Clark, vice chancellor for research and sponsored programs.
“The award recognizes and pays tribute to a faculty member whose career and achievements have generated national and international accolades; someone who has been a leader in his chosen field, who has inspired and encouraged others, who is admired and respected by his peers and who has made outstanding lifelong contributions to his profession and to our institution,” Clark said.
“Dr. ElSohly has done all of this. He has distinguished himself as a researcher, an innovator, an inventor, a businessman and a teacher. His contributions have had an enormous impact on the worldwide scientific community, especially in the areas of drug abuse, pharmaceuticals and phytochemistry (plant chemistry).”
ElSohly – a research professor in UM’s National Center for Natural Products Research and professor of pharmaceutics, as well as president of ElSohly Laboratories Inc. and Phytochemical Services Inc. of Oxford – is grateful for the award.
“I have been very happy here, and I love everyone, from the people I’m working with to the administration, and the work that I do,” he said. “The university has always recognized my contributions and, for that, I am grateful.”
His quick rise up UM’s professorial ladder is proof. ElSohly joined the Ole Miss School of Pharmacy’s Research Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences as a postdoctoral fellow in 1975. Within a year, he became a research associate and acting director of the institute’s Physical Sciences Research group. By 1978, he became an assistant research professor, by 1981 was director of the university’s NIDA-funded Marijuana Project and by 1984 was a full research professor.
The Marijuana Project, which maintains the nation’s only legal marijuana farm, supplies marijuana and its constituents to the NIDA Drug Supply Program, which provides them to researchers in the scientific community around the country studying their potential harmful and beneficial effects.
In the ’80s and early ’90s, ElSohly’s work focused on analyzing marijuana seized by the DEA to develop a marijuana “fingerprinting” system that is used to trace crops to their sources globally. In recent years, he and other UM researchers have studied Cannabis to develop new medicines and new ways of delivering the chemical compounds in marijuana to treat a range of chronic conditions, from chemotherapy-induced nausea to neuropathic pain. They include a THC suppository and a transmucosal THC patch.
ElSohly is recognized nationally and internationally for his “outstanding and creative development of pharmaceutical products,” said Walt Chambliss, UM’s director of technology management. “He is known and highly respected as an excellent pharmaceutical scientist who is one of the best problem solvers I know. His company, ElSohly Laboratories Inc. (aka ELI), has been the recipient of many SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) grants from NIDA and other NIH institutions.”
In recognition of his excellent contributions to the SBIR program, ElSohly received the Tibbetts Award in 2002. These national awards are presented to companies and individuals that exemplify the very best in SBIR achievement by stimulating technological innovation, meeting federal research and development needs, encouraging diverse participation in technological innovation and increasing commercialization of federal research.
In 2008, ElSohly and Ikhlas Khan, NCNPR’s assistant director and director of its FDA Center for Excellence on Botanical Dietary Supplement Research, launched the start-up company Phytochemical Services Inc.
“It is patterned after his successful business model at ELI, but it provides phytochemical analytical services to the dietary supplement industry,” Khan said.
Former RIPS Director Carlton E. Turner, who once directed UM’s Marijuana Project and hired ElSohly to work with him as a postdoc, said that ElSohly played a significant role in developing assays for constituents of Erythroxylon coca, from which cocaine, crack and other drugs are derived, and helped all branches of the military develop and implement urinalysis programs for detecting common drugs of abuse.
“The program was very successful and is still in use today,” Turner said. “Dr. ElSohly continues to be a key player by providing standardized samples and inspecting and certifying the program’s laboratories.”
Today, ElSohly is an internationally recognized authority on the detection, analysis and chemistry of both Cannabis and E. coca. He is the author or co-author of nearly 270 scientific publications in national and international journals and another 270 presentations at scientific meetings worldwide. He has also authored nearly a dozen chapters in books, and his own, “Marijuana and the Cannabinoids,” is “a real classic and often used by Cannabis researchers around the globe,” said Rudolf Brenneisen, professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Bern in Switzerland.
Throughout his career, ElSohly has been a mentor to numerous graduate students at Ole Miss and elsewhere. All have appreciated his warm-hearted expertise and advice. Among them are Nirmal Pugh, an NCNPR senior scientist, and Amir E. Wahba, senior synthetic chemist at Arbor Therapeutics LLC.
“As a graduate student, what I admired most about Dr. ElSohly was his desire and willingness to help others,” Pugh said. “He always encouraged scholarly research and inspired a creative interest in others for problem solving and the intellectual property of each project.”
ElSohly was involved in two of Pugh’s dissertation projects. “Both resulted in patents,” Pugh said, “and these patents have been licensed by commercial entities that now have products on the market.”
ElSohly once gave Wahba an opportunity to help modify one of his cannabinoids.
“It was a wonderful opportunity,” Wahba said. “He guided me through the modification of these highly unstable natural products, and discussion with him always gave me new ideas to solve a certain problem. Even though he did not teach me a class, his way of discussion was very illustrative, clear and informative, which suggests that Dr. ElSohly is a talented teacher.”
ElSohly is a member of 14 scientific societies, several of which have named him a fellow, and is one of the world’s most oft-cited authors in forensic sciences. He has been an expert witness in more than 60 military and civilian court cases, served as a DEA instructor and secured nearly 100 contracts and grants totaling more than $45 million for his research and other projects.
He was nominated for the directorship of the UN Narcotics Laboratory and named Researcher of the Year by the UM pharmacy school and a Distinguished Alumnus by the University of Pittsburgh School of Pharmacy, where he earned his doctoral degree. He was also named a Legacy Laureate, an honor Pitt bestows on only a few alumni annually for their accomplishments.
Paul L. Schiff Jr., a professor of pharmacognosy at Pitt who served as ElSohly’s major professor and dissertation adviser, is not surprised by ElSohly’s success.
“His tenure as a graduate student was remarkably exceptional, and I have never encountered a brighter, more hard-working, dedicated and yet likeable student in my 50 years of contact with graduate students from around the world,” Schiff said. “He finished his entire course of study in just three years, a feat unmatched by any student whom I have ever known. He was very team-oriented and warm-hearted, being a natural leader to whom other students gravitated. These characteristics marked him for a truly exceptional career.”
NCNPR Director Larry Walker said, “Dr. ElSohly is an exceptionally creative researcher who also has the discipline and insight to bring his science to patients and to the marketplace. His consistent record and leadership in research throughout his career are truly remarkable, as is his standing in the scientific community. He has invested his entire career in the University of Mississippi and given her a lifetime of service, so it doesn’t surprise any of us that she has chosen him to receive her most prestigious research and creative achievement award.”