Many arthritis patients have high hopes that the first Health Canada-approved medical marijuana clinical trial provides evidence that cannabis can help them.
Saskatoon-based CanniMed, a subsidiary of Prairie Plant Systems Inc., announced it is now recruiting 40 patients for a yearlong trial studying marijuana’s effect on adults with osteoarthritis of the knee.
The company has partnered with McGill University Health Centre in Montreal and Dalhousie University in Halifax to run the trial at two different sites.
"I’m hoping that we find out it is safe and effective," Arthritis Society Saskatchewan executive director Shirley Philips said in an interview.
"There may be implications for people with pain from other chronic diseases. I think there is a lot to hope for, but you can never predict what the studies will show."
The CanniMed-funded study is a randomized, double blind, placebo controlled clinical trial that will test the efficacy of marijuana and the short-term safety of delivering dosages with vaporizers, the electronic devices used by some patients to inhale vapour instead of smoke created by combustion.
"Up to this point, everything is anecdotal," said Brent Zettl, Prairie Plant Systems Inc., and CanniMed president and CEO.
"The clue we have that medical cannabis could be used as a treatment for arthritis – we were the sole supplier of medical cannabis for Health Canada for 14 years – is that 36 to 38 per cent of patients were using it to manage arthritis pain."
The study is also the first clinical trial launched by Prairie Plant Systems and CanniMed. It took about three-and-a-half years to set up due to lack of government funding and the rigorous approval process for human trials, Zettl said. CanniMed brought in university researchers to keep the study arms-length and free of influence from the pharmaceutical company, he added. "There are a lot of calls to get clinical trials off the ground to prove this thing out," Zettl said.
"Health Canada has always been open to clinical trials for medical cannabis. The system is very well established for doing clinical trials. I think this is the right format to do a proper trial."
Philips said a study, if the benefits are proven, could improve access to medical marijuana for the estimated 4.3 million people dealing with arthritis in Canada.
"We want to make sure it’s safe for people and make sure it’s effective. We hope that having a study like this will maybe assure doctors who are reluctant to prescribe it," Philips said.
"On the way to finding a cure for arthritis, at the very least if this helps to deal with the pain of arthritis, great."
The study will test different strains of cannabis with varying ratios of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), two common active ingredients in cannabis. THC is the psychoactive ingredient that is more aligned with pain reduction and appetite stimulation, while CBD is known for its sedative effects, often sought by people like epilepsy patients, Zettl said.
Researchers in B.C. have recently applied to Health Canada to launch clinical trials testing the effects of cannabis on veterans suffering from PTSD. The Supreme Court of Canada recently ruled that licensed medical marijuana patients have the right to consume cannabis in edible form, but stated more clinical research into its benefits is needed.
Before launching CanniMed, Prairie Plant Systems was the sole producer of cannabis for Health Canada under the old medical marijuana regulations. The rules changed in 2014, allowing other businesses, with Health Canada approval, to sell directly to patients with doctor prescriptions for cannabis.