New funding for cannabis research offers MS patients hope for the future

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When Jessica Turner was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) at age 31, she didn’t want to talk about it—and she didn’t want to take drugs.

“I wasn’t ready to accept that this was happening to me,” Turner tells The GrowthOp. She also didn’t want to accept experiencing the flu-like symptoms that so often accompany interferons, the oldest and most prescribed drug options for patients with relapsing-remitting MS.

Now, 11 years later, Turner has come to terms with her disease and is happy to share her story (she even has a blog) but she still isn’t interested in popping pills to manage her symptoms or prevent a relapse. “I don’t feel sick and I don’t want to feel sick,” she says.

MS Society of Canada announced in March that it will provide $1.5 million to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to fund cannabis and MS research over the next five years.

Instead, Turner rubs cannabidiol (CBD) cream on her joints every day to relieve the pain (she reports it just takes the edge off and seems to help her muscles relax) and takes a drag or two of cannabis (THC, primarily a hybrid of sativa and indica works for her) before bed to mute her symptoms—especially the burning itch that hits her right arm in the evenings—so she can sleep. “It takes everything down from a nine to a one,” she says. “I can’t explain how or why it works, but the most important thing for me is that it takes the edge off.”

Cannabis research seeks to offer answers to many questions

Scientists can’t explain why, either. Which is one of the reasons the MS Society of Canada announced in March that it will provide $1.5 million to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to fund cannabis and MS research over the next five years.

The announcement comes at a time when polled MS patients have indicated a clear interest in using cannabis to help manage their symptoms—or have already given it a try.

A survey of 5,481 MS patients, results of which were published in 2017 in the journal Neurology Clinical Practice, found that 47 percent of respondents had considered trying cannabis and 26 percent had already used it to help them cope with the disease.

Dr. Helen Tremlett, Canada Research Chair in Neuroepidemiology and Multiple Sclerosis and a professor in the faculty of medicine at the University of British Columbia, is particularly excited about the prospect of new investment in cannabis research. “I think the diversity of what the MS Society is funding is great, everything from understanding the role of the microbiome to cognition and cannabis studies,” Dr. Tremlett says. “Diversity in research is key because cannabis is a tough one. It’s a complex compound and there are still a lot of unknowns,” she adds.

A 2018 review of the existing research from scientists at Oregon Health & Science University found that the strongest evidence for using cannabis to help MS patients so far lies in treating spasticity and neuropathic pain.

But there’s still so much that remains unknown, a fact that frustrates Pamela Valentine, PhD, president and CEO of the MS Society of Canada. In a blog post for the organization, Valentine wrote: “Anecdotally, cannabis appears to offer some MS patients life-changing improvements, but we simply don’t know all the facts to draw solid, scientifically proven conclusions. This is not good enough; especially when dealing with a complex disease like MS.”

The society reports that Canada has one of the highest rates of MS in the world, with an estimated 77,000 Canadians living with the disease. “It’s an important disease to be paying attention to and I really want to help make sure it stays on top of the radar in Canada,” Valentine says.

1A GettyImages 109913282 e1555608554716 New funding for cannabis research offers MS patients hope for the future

A survey of 5,481 MS patients, results of which were published in 2017 in the journal Neurology Clinical Practice, found that 47 percent of respondents had considered trying cannabis and 26 percent had already used it to help them cope with the disease.

She worries that now that cannabis is legalized for recreational purposes, there’s a risk people will buy the recreational forms without having the right conversations with their healthcare providers. “It just makes it even more timely for us to push ahead with a strong research agenda now,” Valentine emphasizes. “We want to give solid information to those affected by MS: What’s the right dose? In what form? For which symptom? And, on the other side of things, what are the concerns or potential side effects?”

Honing blunt instruments to sharpen response

Back in the 1970s, Valentine says, there were only three medications available for MS patients and they were “blunt instruments.” Today, there are about 15 disease-modifying therapies on the market, from injectable and oral medications to infusion treatments.

“We’ve come a long way in the last 20 years and I’m really hopeful about what the next 20 years might bring,” she suggests.

The biggest gap in knowledge revolves around progressive forms of the disease, Valentine reports, adding that her hope is the new funding—which she sees as “just a start”—will lead to new treatments while also increasing the efficacy of those already available.

Findings could help ease stigma around cannabis use

In addition to expanding treatment options, Turner says she hopes the new research investment will help address the stigma that clings to cannabis use. “There’s still this idea that cannabis is for stoners, like some dude who sits in his basement playing video games all day,” she says. “I’m a healthy, functioning grown-up with a seven-year-old and a full-time job.”

Turner also uses cupping therapy, but no other drugs beyond cannabis. “I use cannabis to relax my body so that it doesn’t react to my disease—and I just hope this new funding will help open doors for MS patients and people with other autoimmune disorders.”

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