Two cannabis-based medicines have been approved for use by England’s National Health Service (NHS) for the first time. The medicines will be available to treat children with severe forms of two conditions, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis (MS).
It’s the first time drugs containing cannabis have been greenlit for routine use by NHS England by the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), the nation’s drug watchdog.
After reviewing cannabis-based medicines for multiple conditions, NICE has approved the use of Epidyolex to treat two types of epilepsy, Lennox-Gastaut (a form of childhood-onset epilepsy) and Dravet (infant epilepsy caused by fever) syndromes, both of which are considered treatment-resistant. The drug comes in the form of an oral solution of cannabidiol (CBD), the non-psychoactive component in cannabis, which clinical trials have shown can help reduce the frequency of seizures by almost 50 percent in some children.
It is estimated there are up to 9,000 sufferers of Lennox-Gastaut and Dravet in the UK. The drug costs between £5,000 and £10,000 ($6,400 and $12,800) a year per patient but, BBC News reports, GW Pharmaceuticals, the British-based company that developed the drug, has agreed to a discounted price for the NHS.
NICE said more research was needed on cannabis-based medicines before it could approve them for other forms of epilepsy. GW Pharmaceuticals is currently exploring whether Epidyolex could benefit people with West syndrome and Tuberous Sclerosis Complex.
NICE has also approved the use of Sativex, a mouth spray that contains a mix of CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive component of cannabis, to help treat MS sufferers who experience spasms and muscle stiffening.
The new guidelines from NICE, however, have recommended doctors not prescribe cannabis-based medicines, particularly ones containing THC, to chronic pain sufferers, citing a lack of evidence.
Genevieve Edwards, Director of External Affairs at the MS Society, said the approval of Sativex was a welcome announcement, but the omission of use for pain management was disappointing.
“These guidelines are an important first step, but don’t go far enough. No cannabis-based treatments have been recommended to treat pain, a common symptom of MS,” she said.
“We’re calling on the next UK Government to accelerate research and remove barriers to this vital treatment, so cannabis for MS can finally become a reality.”
It became legal for specialist doctors (not GPs) in the UK to prescribe medicinal cannabis back in 2018 but without clear guidelines for prescriptions and funding, many were reluctant to do so. This led to families paying high costs for private prescriptions, and even seeking treatments outside of the UK and bringing it back illegally.
Two of the most high-profile cases that led to the legalization of medicinal cannabis involved Billy Caldwell and Alfie Dingley, two children who both have severe epilepsy who were denied access to cannabis oil, the only thing their families claimed alleviated their seizures. After traveling abroad to procure it, the Home Office confiscated it on their return. Due to both a public backlash and the mounting evidence that cannabis holds real potential in treating health issues, the UK reviewed and updated its policies towards medical marijuana.