Marijuana's momentum is undeniable. Over the past two decades, 23 states have legalized medical marijuana and four states have legalized its use for recreational purposes. Furthermore, public perception on whether or not to legalize the still illicit drug has turned majority positive for the first time in history.
Yet one of the most intriguing aspects of marijuana is its potential medical benefits. With this in mind, we asked three of our top health care analysts if there was a particular disease they believed marijuana had a shot at successfully fighting or even curing. Here's what they had to say.
Brian Orelli: The evidence that GW Pharmaceuticals' (NASDAQ:GWPH) marijuana-derived drug, Epidiolex, works in epileptic patients isn't strong enough to get it approved by regulatory authorities yet, but it certainly is encouraging.
Rather than running a typical trial, GW Pharmaceuticals gave doctors Epidiolex to treat their epileptic patients under expanded access Investigational New Drug applications authorized by the FDA. There are a couple of issues with collecting data this way, including the lack of a control group and a wide range of patients being treated.
Fortunately, the data is strong enough to be believable, even given the caveats. Of 58 patients who had been treated for at least 12 weeks as of the last data release, 12 of them had Dravet syndrome, a type of childhood-onset epilepsy, and there were 12 patients who had drop seizures, which are associated with another type of childhood-onset epilepsy called Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. Dravet syndrome patients saw their convulsive seizure frequency drop by 56% over 12 weeks of treatment compared to a four week observation period before the treatment started. Patients with drop seizures saw an equally impressive 52% reduction in seizures.
Those two groups are important because they're the ones with syndromes that GW Pharmaceuticals plans to run clinical trials on. The first part of a phase 2/3 Dravet syndrome trial to determine the best dose was scheduled to conclude last month, and GW Pharmaceuticals expects to start the phase 3 portion of the trial and a second phase 3 trial in Dravet syndrome this quarter. There are also plans to start two additional phase 3 trials in Lennox-Gastaut syndrome patients this quarter.
With just a three-month treatment period to measure efficacy against a placebo, it won't take too long for investors to know whether Epidolex helps epileptics.
Sean Williams: GW Pharmaceuticals and its more than five dozen discovered cannabinoids are at the heart of a lot of important research. To me, nothing is more intriguing than the potential that marijuana might hold for treating type 2 diabetes.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 29.1 million people in the U.S. have diabetes, and another 86 million have the signs of prediabetes. While not a rapid killer like some types of cancer, diabetes is a chronic and lifelong disease that can lead to a number of other complications.
Though studies on marijuana that examine its medical benefits are rare, one did emerge in May of 2013 in The American Journal of Medicine that showed current marijuana users had a 16% reduction in fasting insulin levels relative to non-users. They also had a 17% drop in HOMA-IR, which is a model that researchers use to measure beta-cell function and assess insulin resistance. As a final coup de grace, marijuana users also had slimmer waistlines than non-users.
The practical application of this study on type 2 diabetics could be a positive for GW Pharma's own experimental diabetes compound, GWP42004. In phase 2a studies, GWP42004 led to statistically significant reductions in fasting plasma glucose levels and improved beta-cell function.
I could certainly see marijuana offering a new pathway of treatment for type 2 diabetics, and I'm hopeful it could make a meaningful difference. Conversely, I understand that an approval is likely years out, and the federal government's stance on marijuana as a schedule 1 drug is unlikely to change anytime soon. While I'd love to stand behind this data, the investing part of my brain keeps telling me that GW Pharma is probably not a good buy right here.
Todd Campbell: For decades, conventional wisdom held that smoking pot could, at a minimum, trigger schizophrenia. But more recent research suggests that CBD, a key marijuana cannabinoid, may actually help treat the disease instead.
As a result, GW Pharmaceuticals is studying whether or not its purified CBD drug may be able to fill a significant need in a very large market. In the United States, 1.1% of the population suffers from schizophrenia, which makes the market for antipsychotic therapies worth billions of dollars annually.
So far, GW Pharma's research into using CBD to treat schizophrenia is in the early stages. The company is currently conducting a phase 2a study that doses CBD alongside antipsychotic medicine and that should have results later this year. If the mid stage trial proves successful, the company will consider launching a much larger trial.