Recently, many news outlets have reported on the potential therapeutic benefits of medical cannabis for children with severe epilepsy. A crop of new studies has shown that drugs derived from cannabis can reduce the frequency of seizures in these vulnerable patients. According to the Epilepsy Foundation, around 300,000 American children under 14 suffer from epilepsy, and about a third of these patients suffer from a severe, treatment-resistant form of the disease that can lead to lifelong cognitive, motor, and behavioral delays. For these patients and their families, cannabis-based medicines aren't just a trending topic — they're a source of hope.
Dr. Catherine Jacobson, who leads clinical research efforts at Tilray, knows just how important studying the science of medical cannabis really is. Every day, Dr. Jacobson works with patients, policymakers, and researchers around the world to develop groundbreaking programs and partnerships to create and study cannabis-derived treatments for a variety of conditions, like chemotherapy-induced nausea and post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans and survivors of assault. Dr. Jacobson is also the mother of a child with severe epilepsy, whose interest in medical cannabis is both professional and personal.
When Dr. Jacobson began exploring medical cannabis as an option for her own son, she discovered that few doctors had enough information about medical cannabis to guide patients and their families effectively. Meanwhile, the cannabis-based medicines with the most promise were often unavailable or unsafe. In a new essay, she writes:
For many frustrating months I attempted to find a reliable and safe source of CBD [a chemical compound, or cannabinoid, found in cannabis with therapeutic properties that can be isolated from the plant]. I could not. Available samples were only provided in small artisanal batches and were not reproducible. They were often inaccurately labeled. What bud-tenders were calling CBD was always a mixture of many components of the plant, including the psychoactive cannabinoid, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The preparations also contained contaminants such as heavy metals, solvents, and pesticides — facts we discovered when we tested these preparations at medical cannabis testing facilities.
Dr. Jacobson's initial experiences with the status quo of medical cannabis have shaped her resolve as a researcher. Dr. Jacobson believes that gathering data from medical cannabis patients — data that can then be used by other patients, their caregivers, and their healthcare providers in determining an appropriate medical cannabis regimen — is a crucial step toward progress. So is vetting standardized study drugs through clinical trials like Tilray's global research partnerships. "This type of observational study would provide important information about whether the investigational drug is beneficial — and for whom," she writes. "Whether patients are ingesting capsules or oils or vaporizing raw flowers, accurate documentation of the chemical components of the preparations and the dose administered is essential."
In April, Dr. Jacobson will speak at CannMed 2016, a medical cannabis conference held at the Harvard School of Medicine, and the Cannabis Science and Policy Summit at New York University. To learn more about Dr. Jacobson's unique perspective as a parent and a researcher, read her full essay, "Practical Issues in Medical Cannabis Use," in SGIM Forum.