When we talk about cannabis in a medical sense, what often springs to mind is how it is used as a treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS), or to ease the side effects of chemotherapy. However, in a recent issue of The Biologist – the Society of Biology’s magazine – Dr David Potter, the Director of Botanical Research and Cultivation at GW Pharmaceuticals, has discussed how cannabis could be bred to provide the raw starting material for a medicine to treat metabolic disorders.
Researchers at the UK’s only legal cannabis production facility are researching ways to use highly-standardised extracts from the plant to tackle metabolic syndrome, and are studying how such products could potentially treat conditions as diverse as cancer pain, epilepsy, ulcerative colitis, psychosis and brain injury.
GW Pharmaceuticals’ first licensed medicine, Sativex, is already used to treat muscle spasticity in MS patients and primarily contains two principal cannabinoids: THC and CBD. But the medical potential of the remaining, minor cannabinoids is also huge.
Obesity, with all its effects on human health, is widespread and the GW Pharmaceuticals team is exploring how they can use cannabis-derived medicines to tackle one aspect of the problem. Phase IIa clinical studies are evaluating specific cannabinoids as potential treatments for metabolic syndrome and Type II diabetes, thus building on pre-clinical data demonstrating the desirable effects of a number of cannabinoids on insulin resistance, cholesterol and liver fat, all features of metabolic disease.
“Metabolic syndrome is a disruption of the way the body metabolises food to produce energy or to store as fat,” explains Dr Potter. “It is most common in obese people and can lead to major health problems such as Type II diabetes.”
Meanwhile, compounds developed by GW have shown promise in the treatment of epilepsy, and the company has recently discovered that cannabinoids are able to reduce the expression of certain epilepsy-related genes. This opens up an exciting possibility of using cannabinoids as personalised epilepsy medicines; patients most likely to respond can be identified by the presence of a specific gene.
GW Pharmaceuticals is also testing the use of medicines based on CBD for the treatment of psychiatric disorders. Encouraging in vivo studies suggest that, because of its anti-inflammatory properties, CBD could also be useful in treating brain injury, both in accident victims and newborns starved of oxygen at birth.
Dr Potter concludes: “As rigorous modern research with cannabinoids comes to fruition, a new era of treatment options may have arrived.”