A drug derived from medical marijuana and taken as an oil has cut seizure rates in half in children with a severe and debilitating form of epilepsy.
The study is one of the first of its kind to rigorously test the benefits and pitfalls of this compound of cannabis on epilepsy patients. The team believes the drug has the potential to relieve thousands of children with life-threatening, convulsive seizures typical of this disorder.
Dravet syndrome, a rare type of epilepsy primarily due to a faulty gene, typically begins at six months of age. The genetic disorder affects an estimated one in 40,000 people, and by their second year of life, development slows and sometimes even regresses. The syndrome is plagued by a high mortality rate.
Marijuana, on the other hand, is a highly charged issue, with medicinal cannabis still illegal in many US jurisdictions. Although cannabis has been used for centuries to treat those with seizures, it was prohibited in the 20th century.
"Opiates kill over 30,000 Americans a year, alcohol kills over 80,000 a year. And marijuana, as best we know, probably kills less than 50 people a year," study leader Dr Orrin Devinsky of NYU Langone Medical Center told the Associated Press, condemning the special licenses, legal constraints, and stigmatization that inhibits further research into the plant.
Yet, this doesn’t stop it from being a “hot-button issue”. Due to this, the team conducted a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial on 120 participants with Dravet syndrome, aged two to 18 years of age.
Half of them received a liquid form of cannabidiol called Epidiolex, which doesn’t contain the hallucinogenic ingredient THC, while the other half received a placebo. The drug group was given 20 milligrams of cannabidiol per kilogram of weight.
Prior to the study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the number of seizures per month for a single patient ranged from four to 1,717, with an average frequency at around 12 seizures. With the marijuana extract, the frequency of seizures decreased to six per month. Three children (5 percent) ceased having seizures altogether.
This is not a perfect elixir though, with participants in the drug group reporting vomiting, fatigue, fever, decreased appetite, lethargy, and diarrhea, among other effects. In the cannabidiol group, eight patients withdrew from the trial owing to adverse events, compared with one in the placebo group.
But for some patients, it was a long sought-after treatment. The trial was paid for by GW Pharmaceuticals, who are now seeking US Food and Drug Administration approval. The drug is currently being trailed in a second study in patients with Dravet syndrome, as well as those with some other types of epilepsy.
As Devinsky told CNN: "After 3,800 years of cannabis use for epilepsy ... we finally have solid evidence."