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SKEPTOID BLOG:

Is Big Pharma Ignoring Marijuana?

by Eric Hall

June 28, 2014

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Donate Last year I wrote a post about an argument I had with a family member over the use of marijuana. My position has a few different facets. I feel our government has it wrong on making it illegal. Some reasonable controls, such as doing our best to keep it out of the hands of kids and having information out there about the risks, should be about the limit there. I also feel proponents of use have it wrong. Marijuana is not harmless. Studies continue to point out that using the drug for long periods of time can cause damage in the brain as evidenced by cognitive function and even in physical characteristics. Finally, those who feel marijuana should be allowed as a medicine, making fantastical claims of magic cures with no evidence and not acknowledging the side effects, are also very wrong. Selling the medical benefits in this way is selling snake oil. But are there any benefits? And is research happening?

Research into the effects of cannabis is still on-going. The individual states in the U.S. have varied laws, and federal law complicates matters of research further. For example, the University of Minnesota received a grant from the NIH to do research on treating pain in those with sickle cell disease. However, because that treatment is specifically excluded from the new medical marijuana law in Minnesota, the U of M had to conduct the research in California. So yes, research is happening, just not in an ideal way.

There are many anecdotes of extracted cannabis oil working to treat all sorts of diseases. One popular story concerns a young woman with a grade II glioma. I mentioned in my previous post that these types of tumors are known to have spontaneous regression, but because she happened to be using cannabis oil at the time she claims it cured her. Others say it helps with pain and nausea. These anecdotes do have some scientific basis, though there are also often pharmaceutical solutions with far fewer side effects. (I want to note, again, this doesn't mean I support bans on cannabis use or that adults shouldn't have a choice in using marijuana. I try to focus on the science. Using pseudoscience to defend your position is misleading and possibly harmful. Having correct, scientifically accurate information is always my aim in discussing most topics.)

One condition that has been difficult to treat to this point has been resistant or uncontrolled epilepsy. Children with this fairly rare form will have seizures several times a day. They do seem to respond to cannabis oil. In fact, Minnesota's medical marijuana law had its beginning when a state legislator heard from a family dealing with this disorder and facing the choice of having to move to another state to get cannabis oil to help treat their daughter's seizures. While there are anecdotes and some case studies of it working, because the cases involve a controlled substance and children, getting a study approved is a difficult process. The usual response from supporters of these non-scientifically based treatments is either "look at these anecdotes," or "big pharma won't allow this because it would hurt their profits." The usual skeptic response is if the anecdotes are true, let's put it through the scientific process and big pharma will if it works.

And indeed the scientific process is working. GW Pharmaceuticals has released the results from a 12-week trial in a small number of patients using their drug Epidiolex. Epidiolex is an isolated and purified cannabinoid called CBD; it contains none of the psychotropic component THC, nor any of the other cannabinoids found in marijuana. Humans have lots of cannabinoid receptors in our body, and our body makes some to control all sorts of body functions. Because cannabis and cannabis oil contain a number of cannabinoids, there are many potential side effects. If we can narrow down the specific cannabinoid used to treat a disease, it removes the chance of side effects from the unneeded cannabinoids.

The results are encouraging. Keep in mind this was a small study. While it certainly would need a much larger study before considering the results conclusive, the initial trials show some significant benefits:
  • The mean overall reduction in seizure frequency as compared to baseline seizure frequency was 44% and median overall reduction in seizure frequency as compared to baseline seizure frequency was 42%

  • 48% of all patients obtained at least a 50% reduction in seizure frequency as compared to baseline seizure frequency

  • 41% of all patients obtained at least a 70% reduction in seizure frequency as compared to baseline seizure frequency

  • 22% of all patients obtained at least a 90% reduction in seizure frequency as compared to baseline seizure frequency

  • At the end of 12 weeks, 15% of all patients were seizure-free

While we wait for a larger study to confirm these results, I thought this was a good time to share this story. Too often, promoters of pseudoscience try to say that skeptics, "big pharma," "mainstream medicine," and any other supporter of science simply doesn't want to know about their "natural treatment." This is an example of the opposite being true. Anecdotes and case studies brought about real science. Science not only found a way to provide evidence for cannabis working in these seizure cases, but it improved upon it to reduce the side effects. This is what science does for all of us. It builds upon knowledge, improves it, and removes bias. Instead of fighting science, let's use science just like this to make things better.

by Eric Hall

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