2002-05-20 13:00:15 -0400 (Reuters Health)
By Richard Woodman
LONDON (Reuters Health) - British patients who overcame some of the legal obstacles to using cannabis for their multiple sclerosis (MS) could still fall foul of the health economics watchdog, NICE, it emerged on Monday.
A negative opinion from National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) means that new treatments are unlikely to be funded by the National Health Service (NHS), even if they have been licensed by the Medicines Control Agency.
Although the government has no plans to decriminalise cannabis, the rules have been relaxed and several clinical trials are now under way to find out if the drug can help treat symptoms of multiple sclerosis.
The studies include a large UK trial of 660 patients who have been randomly assigned to use cannabis, tetrahydrocannabinol or an inactive placebo.
But even before the results are known, NICE said on Monday that it will also be examining the clinical benefits and cost effectiveness of cannabinoids in multiple sclerosis as part of its latest wave of investigations.
NICE has already said it needs to be convinced of the benefits of licensed drugs such as interferon in multiple sclerosis, effectively forcing drugmakers to help organise large, long-term follow-up studies of patients in the UK.
Its latest probes will also include pegylated interferon alpha for hepatitis C, clopidogrel and dipyridamole for secondary prevention of atherosclerotic events, and the newer hypnotic drugs for the treatment of insomnia.
GW Pharmaceuticals, Plc, the British pharmaceutical company developing a portfolio of non-smoked cannabis-based prescription medicines, welcomed the announcement, saying it was a "significant step along the road towards the nationwide provision of cannabis-based prescription medicines for NHS patients."
GW is conducting trials of cannabis-based medicines for the treatment of symptoms caused by nerve damage associated with conditions such as multiple sclerosis, cancer pain and spinal cord injury. The company said that if the medicines were licensed, the Home Secretary had indicated that the law would be amended to allow them to be prescribed.
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