Synthetic marijuana helps cancer patients


medical marijuana LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A synthetic version of the active ingredient in marijuana, a legal treatment for nausea in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, also helps symptoms like pain, anxiety and depression, according to research presented on Friday.

"The findings show how great the potential is to improve the quality of life for cancer patients," said lead investigator Dr. Vincent Maida of the University of Toronto.

The 139-patient study involved a drug called nabilone, sold under the brand name Cesamet by Valeant Pharmaceuticals International. It has been available in Canada for years, and was approved in May by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for patients who have failed to respond adequately to conventional anti-nausea treatments.

The drug is part of a class known as cannabinoids that are similar to the active ingredient found in naturally occurring cannabis, or marijuana.

But Cesamet, as with similar drugs such as Solvay SA's Marinol, is designed to target specific cannabinoid receptors and does not carry the toxic effects associated with smoking marijuana, Maida said.

"This is not the pot pill," he said. "It has absolutely no street value."

That contrasts with morphine-based pain drugs, such as OxyContin, that are associated with addiction and abuse, the investigator said.

The study, based on questionnaires filled out by cancer patients, found that those treated with the drug experienced significantly more pain reduction than patients treated with standard therapy. Scores for drowsiness, tiredness, appetite and well-being were stable in the Cesamet group, but deteriorated in the non-Cesamet group.

Depression and anxiety were also reduced significantly in the nabilone group, but increased in the non-cannabinoid group, according to the study, which was presented at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium.

"There are no other drugs that are as broad-spectrum as cannabinoids. By using them, we can reduce the use of other drugs which are riskier, burdensome and expensive," Maida said.

Side effects of Cesamet include drowsiness, dizziness, dry mouth and euphoria.

But Valeant's sales of the drug, which was launched in the United States in August, totaled just $7.3 million in the first half of this year.

"The issue is the stigma," Maida said. "There is some timidity on the part of practitioners to prescribe these drugs."

© Reuters 2006


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