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Scientists Think Cannabinoids in Sativex Can Actually Beat Brain Cancer
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Researchers are studying whether Sativex (or Epidiolex), one of the only federally legal cannabinoids, can kill brain cancer and shepherd people into recovery.
Published on August 6, 2021

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Sativex has played a significant role in marijuana history. It’s the first cannabis-derived pharmaceutical to be legalized in many countries around the world, including the UK, Spain, United States, Canada, and New Zealand. 

The drug’s utility may be about to expand, however. The UK’s federal health agency and cancer non-profits have announced they will launch a study to see if Sativex can help slow the progression of brain cancer.

A non-profit called the Brain Tumour Charity hopes to provide funding for the three-year study of 232 people with glioblastoma, which is said to affect 2,200 people in England annually. That money is contingent on the organization receiving an approval for financial assistance for £450,000. That’s how much money it will take to pull the project off. The investigation will be coordinated by Cancer Research UK.

If all goes according to plan, patients will receive Sativex and the temozolomide chemotherapy drug, temozolomide on its own, or a placebo.

The plan follows a phase one trial examining the interaction of temozolomide and Sativex of 27 people with cancer. Those results were encouraging enough to proceed with the testing, although study participants did report side effects of sickness, tiredness, and dizziness. 

Sativex (sold as nabiximols or Epidiolex in the United States) is manufactured by British company GW Pharmaceuticals, which received full federal approval in its home country for the drug back in 2010 for the treatment of multiple sclerosis. In 2018, the CBD and Delta-9-THC oral aerosol spray became the first FDA-approved drug derived from marijuana. The United States agency approved the medicine for use in fighting Lennox-Gastaut and Dravet syndrome epileptic disorders.

"It's not just street cannabis put into a bottle,” GW Pharmaceutical CEO Justin Gover once told the Guardian. Indeed, much of the company’s success in pushing the drug into foreign markets has been convincing health regulators of just that. Should the upcoming trial prove that the drug is effective in treating the especially aggressive form of cancer, its ubiquity will only increase. In Spain, for instance, the medicine is already covered by public health care plans. 

“We think that Sativex may kill glioblastoma tumour cells and that it may be particularly effective when given with temozolomide chemotherapy, so it may enhance the effects of chemotherapy treatment in stopping these tumours growing, allowing patients to live longer,” said Susan Short, a Leeds University clinical oncology and neuro-oncology professor.

Whatever happens, it’s exciting to see more and more scientific investigations into the medicinal uses of cannabis. For years, such studies were largely blocked by prohibition-committed government entities. 

In other positive news on this front, earlier this year the DEA announced that additional US companies would be allowed to supply scientists with cannabis for scientific research. Before — and since 1968 — supply was only allowed to come from a government sanctioned facility at the University of Mississippi. And the weed was (and still is) terrible! So, this move is expected to lead to a boom in our understanding of cannabis.

In England, scientists are hoping that Sativex could play a major role in improving quality of life for people living with cancer. “We hope this trial could pave the way for a long-awaited new lifeline that could help offer glioblastoma patients precious extra months to live and make memories with their loved ones,” said Dr David Jenkinson of the Brain Tumour Charity.

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Caitlin Donohue
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Caitlin Donohue is a Bay Area-raised, Mexico City-based cannabis writer and author of She Represents: 44 Women Who Are Changing Politics and the World. Her weekly show Crónica on Radio Nopal explores Mexican marijuana culture and politics in the prohibition era. Follow Caitlin on IG @byrdwatch.
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