22 May 2003
Multiple sclerosis sufferers in New Zealand have welcomed news that
a pioneering British cannabis-based treatment may be introduced here in
Salisbury-based GW Pharmaceuticals announced yesterday that it has sold the British marketing rights of its drug Sativex to German healthcare giant Bayer.
GW has indicated previously that once approval was received for Britain, it would examine the possibility of entering the market in other Commonwealth countries such as New Zealand, Canada and Australia.
A spokeswoman for the Multiple Sclerosis Society of New Zealand, Melissa Martin, said the society supported any action that would increase accessibility to "proven, safe and ethical treatments".
"We would also support a change in the legislation that would make cannabis available for clinical trials to establish the position of cannabis as a medicinal agent for the relief of specific symptoms, such as spasticity and pain."
The society had been following overseas clinical trials of cannabis in the treatment of the neurological condition for several years, and were expecting the mouthspray to be on the market in Britain and Canada by the end of the year.
Before any drug could be licensed in New Zealand, it would have to undergo clinical trials here and become an approved medicine.
While previous studies had been based on "anecdotal evidence", these trials were working on clinical data, she said.
Many of the drugs currently on the market to alleviate symptoms (such as pain or spasticity) have heavy side-effects, including sedation.
Ms Martin said the society's bottom line was that "anything that could make sufferers' lives better or easier" should be made available, as long as it was "legal and ethical".
"However, we're not recommending that people go out and start smoking cannabis just because some people in Britain are on clinical trials."
The greatest frustration for many sufferers was the very narrow criteria for the drugs currently available for slowing the progression of the disease.
Pharmac, the Government's drug-buying agency, has set very strict criteria: one has to be sick enough to get the drug but not too sick to benefit.
"There is widespread frustration that due to funding constraints, the treatment which could maybe stop their condition progressing is not available until they get worse."
Symptoms include chronic fatigue, muscle spasms, pain, numbness, blindness and loss of bladder and bowel control.
The disease could occur in anyone and could be limited to one episode or on-going incapacitation, Ms Martin said.
"Some people are so crippled by fatigue that it takes them two hours to get dressed."
In Britain, clinical tests on the treatment have already been successfully carried out, but before the drug can be given to patients it must receive clearance from the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
A licence application was submitted to the MHRA in March. Tests are taking place to assess whether the drug can help cancer sufferers.
Because of its cannabis content, Sativex will also require a change
in the law but British home secretary David Blunkett has already indicated
he would be willing to make the amendment if the drug received approval.
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