Cannabis plants are being grown at a secret facility in the south of England in the hope of producing a new treatment for epilepsy.
By Richard Gray | Published in The Telegraph
Researchers at the University of Reading have discovered that three compounds found in cannabis leaves can help to reduce and control seizures in epilepsy.
They are now using extracts from the plants grown in huge industrial-sized greenhouses in the south of England to develop new drugs that could ease the misery of millions of epilepsy sufferers around the world.
In the UK alone there are more than 500,000 people who suffer from epilepsy.
“Cannabis is thought of being a treasure trove of compounds that could be used for pharmacological development.” ~ Dr. Ben Whalley, University of Reading
Dr Ben Whalley, who is leading the research at the department of pharmacy at the University of Reading, said tests in animals had shown the compounds effective at preventing seizures and convulsions while also having less side effects than existing epilepsy drugs.
He said: “There was a stigma associated with cannabis that came out from the 60s and 70s associated with recreational use, so people have tended not to look at it medicinally as a result.
“Cannabis is thought of being a treasure trove of compounds that could be used for pharmacological development. We have a list of around a dozen potential candidates for epilepsy and have tested three that show promise.”
“These compounds are very well tolerated and you are not seeing the same kind of side effects that you get with the existing treatments.”
Epilepsy is caused by sudden bursts of electrical activity in the brain that disrupt the normal way in which messages are transmitted. This can cause debilitating seizures and fits that can lead to sufferers injuring themselves.
Dr Whalley, together with his colleagues Dr Claire Williams and Dr Gary Stephens have been working with drug company GW Pharmaceuticals to develop and test new treatments for the disease from cannabis.
Two of the compounds they have identified, one called cannabidiol and the other called GWP42006, have been highly effective at controlling seizures in animals and the researchers now hope to begin clinical trials in humans within the next three years.
Neither of the compounds produce the characteristic “high” associated with cannabis use.
The scientists, whose latest findings on the compounds are published in the scientific journal Seizure, believe they work by interfering with the signals that cause the brain to become hyper-excitable, which leads to epileptic seizures.
Until now the main medicinal use that has been explored for cannabis has been in treating Multiple Sclerosis and for pain relief in cancer patients.
GW Pharmaceuticals has been given a license to grows around 20 tonnes of cannabis a year at its facilities in a rural part of southern England for medicinal research. In each glasshouse the temperature is carefully maintained at 77 degrees F while the crops are protected by electric fences and 24 hour security.
Mark Rogerson, from GW Pharmaceuticals, said: “Medicinal cannabinoids can treat a wide range of diseases like MS and pain.
“The work by Dr Whalley and his team is taking us into a whole new area where there is a real unmet need.
“The stigma is counterbalanced by the fact that it is a serious medicine for a serious condition.”
A spokesman for Epilepsy Action said: “Epilepsy is a condition that can be very difficult to treat.
“We are aware of some people with epilepsy who have used cannabis for medicinal purposes. However, it should be noted that although taking cannabis may reduce seizures in some people, it could actually increase seizures in others.
“We therefore welcome research into this treatment area. It could help our understanding of alternative therapies and may prove useful in the long-term for people whose epilepsy does not respond to more traditional methods.”