1.26 a.m. ET (1352 GMT) January 19, 1999
By Roger Dobson
Marijuana tablets that relieve pain without giving a high are to be tested on people for the first time this week, doctors say.
In the study at the University of California some patients will given the new tablets, which contain a synthetic version of one of the drug's ingredients. Their progress will be compared with that of patients who smoke marijuana three times a day.
The initial aim of the research is to see what effect the new drug has on the nausea suffered by patients receiving experimental Aids drugs and how it interacts with new drugs being developed.
The trials are scheduled to last for a year, and if they are successful, the team hopes to investigate the use of a tablet containing some of the active ingredients of marijuana as a treatment for other conditions such as depression and multiple sclerosis.
A team led by Professor Donald Abrams designed the trial, in which 64 people will take part.
"So far we have enrolled 27 patients out of the 64 we are looking for. They are here as in-patients for 25 days and they will smoke marijuana three time a day, or take oral doses of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabino (THC), a constituent of marijuana, or take a placebo. We are trying to do an effectiveness study to see what effects there are in smoking and swallowing," says Abrams.
The volunteers will undergo a series of tests to see how the drug affects the immune system, hormone levels and appetite.
Doctors are keen to see if there is any difference between the effects of natural marijuana and the tablet. THC is a large component of marijuana but it is one of only 400 compounds that have been isolated from it.
"It may be that other compounds have an effect as well, or that they work together to have a combined effect," says Abrams.
It can take some time for the tablet to take effect after it has been swallowed, whereas smoking gets the therapeutic compounds into the bloodstream much more quickly. The tablet also stays effective for a much longer period, which may not be needed in all cases.
Another problem with the tablet is that for some people it can produce a greater high than is achieved by smoking marijuana. However, others experience no high, and the team hopes to work out what causes these reactions.
Many Aids patients have benefited from the arrival two years ago of a new family of protease inhibitor drugs. Doctors found that the progress of the disease was being slowed and that many patients were spared from suffering with a wasting syndrome associated with the disease. But one side-effect of the new drugs was that they caused gastro-intestinal problems, including nausea and vomiting.
The Californian study hopes to find a way of legally using marijuana to combat these effects and providing a synthetic version of the drug that does not give patients a high but simply relieves their pain.
The study is the first of its kind and comes as a British pharmaceutical company is going ahead with plans to grow 20,000 marijuana plants for research into medicinal uses of the drug.
Marijuana is said to have beneficial effects in a wide range of disorders, including cancer, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, epilepsy, migraine and depression. It is also claimed to have been useful in tinnitus, diabetic gastroparesis, Crohn's disease and schizophrenia.
The budget for the research at the university in San Francisco is $1m.
It will receive 1,400 marijuana cigarettes from the US National Institute
for Drug Abuse.
© 1999, News America Digital Publishing, Inc. d/b/a Fox News Online.
All rights reserved. Fox News is a registered trademark of 20th Century Fox Film Corp.