Wednesday May 2 2:23
By Giles Elgood
LONDON (Reuters) - A British drug company said on Wednesday it was a step closer to launching a cannabis-based medicine for patients with multiple sclerosis and other conditions that cause severe pain.
GW Pharmaceuticals said it had obtained encouraging results from the latest phase of clinical trials and was now extending its programme into Phase III trials, which involve a wider range of patients in new locations. The studies are the last hurdle before approval is granted.
The company said it had also obtained regulatory approval to start clinical trials in Canada.
Sufferers from diseases such as multiple sclerosis, which attacks the central nervous system, have been calling for a pain-relieving cannabis medicine for years and many have broken the law by buying the drug from street dealers.
GW has invested 12 million ($17 million) in its research and hopes to market its first prescription cannabis-based medicine in 2003.
It will offer patients the pain-relieving benefits of cannabis without what the company calls ``unwanted psychoactive side effects.'' Getting ``high,'' as would happen if patients smoked marijuana, does not in itself offer medical benefits.
GW's trials have involved patients taking cannabis-based medicine by spraying it under their tongues, which allows it to be absorbed rather than swallowed.
Dr Geoffrey Guy, chairman of GW Pharmaceuticals, said: ''Data from our four Phase II studies in approximately 70 subjects is positive and encouraging. Patients are clearly gaining benefit.
``We are seeing a significant improvement in quality of life for sufferers of a range of medical conditions and look forward to extending the trials programme.''
Results appeared to show significant reduction in pain, muscle spasm and bladder dysfunction as well as improved neurological function.
Guy said the company had received approval from Canadian health authorities allowing it to start trials in Canada.
GW Pharmaceuticals Ltd is a private company, set up in 1997, which operates under licences issued by the British Home Office (interior ministry) to cultivate, possess and supply cannabis for medical research.
The company has been growing cannabis in secure, computer-controlled glasshouses in southern England.
The plants are the same as those grown for recreational use, but trials are designed to maximise the drug's analgesic, or pain-relieving, effect rather than to make subjects so high they do not care about the pain.
The company said that if health authorities issued a licence for cannabis-based medicine, the government had indicated it would be willing to amend narcotics laws to allow it to be prescribed.