Canadian researchers to study cannabis oil to treat kids’ epilepsy
Published Saturday, March 11, 2017 1:15PM EST
Last Updated Saturday, March 11, 2017 3:03PM EST
One of the researchers launching a study into the potential benefits of cannabis oil on childhood epilepsy says he is interested to learn how the drug affects the children’s quality of life.
Dr. Richard Huntsman, a pediatric neurologist and a professor at the University of Saskatchewan, is leading the cannabis oil study along with Dr. Richard Tang-Wai, a pediatric epileptologist at the University of Alberta.
The main goal of their study is to learn if concentrated cannabis oil can be used safely in children with epilepsy. But they also want to look at whether it helps control seizures and whether it helps children’s lives improve, he told CTV News Channel Saturday.
“For me, I would feel as a parent, having better quality of life would be just as important as control of seizures, so that’s something we really want to look at,” he said.
The study is due to recruit 30 children between the ages of one and 10 with severe epilepsy in Saskatoon first, then kids in other sites across Canada later.
The team will be focusing on kids with the most severe forms of epilepsy who don’t respond to regular treatments or who incur significant side effects from the usual treatments, Hunstman stressed. Some of these children have 50 to 300 seizures a day, struggle with basic life skills and have regressed developmentally because of their condition.
Huntsman says parents of many of his own patients tell him they are already giving their kids cannabis oil to help control their epilepsy, despite the fact that the drug’s use for the condition is not well understood.
“Right now there is very little research on cannabis use for the treatment of epilepsy,” he said. “There are a few small studies that have been performed, retrospective reviews, that seem to suggest there are some children with very severe epilepsy… who do respond to cannabis oil.”
Cannabis oil does not contain THC (or tetrahydrocannabinol) the compound that gives marijuana smokers a “high.” Instead, it contains a concentrated form of cannabidiol, or CBD, another key marijuana compound that many believe helps control epilepsy.
“It seems to have an effect on certain neurotransmitter receptors in the brain,” Huntsman said of cannabidiol. “That’s one of our theories on how it works.”
Many parents of kids with epilepsy order the oil from licenced medical marijuana producers here in Canada or they obtain it from the U.S., despite laws against importing marijuana or any of its derivatives.
Huntsman says some of the parents of his own patients tell him their children have improved since they began using the oil.
“It is something I’m hearing fairly often in my clinic. We’re not sure why that is. Could it be just the cannabidiol? Could it be the very minute amounts of THC? We’re not sure,” he said.
Huntsman says it will take the children in his study seven months to complete the study. The children will be monitored by a team of experts in pediatric neurology, pharmacology, clinical biochemical analysis, psychology and biostatistics. He and his team then hope to have data available for presentation in the next year to year and a half.
The study is being funded with support from the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Saskatchewan and the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation, among others.
Information on how to enroll can be found on ClinicalTrials.gov
At the same time, researchers at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children are beginning their own study on the use of cannabis extracts to treat children with severe epilepsy.
That study will enrol 20 children aged one to 18 with Dravet syndrome, a rare and debilitating form of epilepsy that begins in infancy. The condition, caused by a genetic mutation, accounts for about one per cent of all cases of epilepsy.
In December 2015, the Canadian Paediatric Society issued a statement warning parents against using medical marijuana to treat their children's health conditions.
The statement said that while cannabis is increasingly being used to treat certain kids' illnesses, "evidence is lacking about the overall effect on children.