A leading cancer specialist whose patients took part in a clinical trial for a cannabis-based drug believes the results are “encouraging.”
Professor Anthony Chalmers, head of clinical oncology at Glasgow University, said the results revealing a cannabis drug called Sativex may prolong a patient’s life should be followed by more extensive research.
His comment came as some patients with brain tumors illegally import medical cannabis to treat tumors previously labeled incurable.
The legality of medical cannabis is under review by the Home Office after the mother of a severely epileptic boy was stopped at Heathrow while returning from Canada with a supply.
Professor Chalmers’ patients were part of an international drug study showing 83% of patients were alive a year later compared with 53% of those who did not get the cannabis drug.
The highly aggressive tumors, glioblastomas, normally leave most patients with a life expectancy of just 12 to 18 months.
Professor Chalmers said: “The study was small and looked at 21 patients.
“It was a small number, but encouraging enough for more research to look a larger one with more patients.
“We would hope to take part in future trials with Sativex.”
If he was faced with the same dilemma as his patients, Professor Chalmers admitted he would give serious thought to taking cannabis produced under strict laboratory conditions.
“I would consider it if standard treatment had failed.”
Some of his patients have turned to importing cannabis oil illegally after chemo and or radiotherapy failed to make any impact on their brain tumors.
They include Caroline Burns, 34, from Cumbernauld, whose tumor shrunk by 26%.
She is alive three years after being given three months to live. Her family import illegal cannabis from Canada.
Professor Chalmers calls her “the best result among glioma patients”.
But medical trials have to look at large numbers of patients to glean good evidence on what works.
Professor Chalmers draws a distinction between street cannabis and medical cannabis imported from reputable laboratories.
“Street cannabis contains dangerous chemicals, in the way tobacco does,” he said.
“Cannabis produced in reputable laboratories is different.”
Professor Chalmers comments were supported by neurology professor, John Paul Leach, who has treated epilepsy patients for more than 25 years in Glasgow hospitals.
He said: “I’m asked by parents of children where they can get cannabis preparations but have to warn them that online drug sources can be expensive and dangerous.
“Supplies may vary hugely in their content. Pharmaceutical preparations of cannabis are much more tightly prepared and consistent because of the care taken in making highly purified products in controlled labs.
“While some patients may be taking cannabis preparations without our knowledge, I would urge them to be honest with doctors as cannabis derivatives may interact badly with prescribed drugs.”
He said some trials had shown improvement in some patients but larger studies are needed to provide more evidence in other types of epilepsy.
Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, announced a review into medical cannabis use last Monday.
It came after teenager Billy Caldwell was hospitalized because of his epileptic fits after customs officers seized cannabis oil from his mother, Charlotte, as she returned from Canada.
It was returned after the Home Secretary intervened. He is also aware of the case the case of Caroline, from Cumbernauld, whose family are risking risk prosecution to save her.
Her MP, Stuart McDonald, said: “I have told Sajid Javid the desperate measures Caroline and her family have taken. Desperately-ill people don’t have months to wait for an inquiry.
“Good people can’t be asked to play cat and mouse with the law to save their lives.”
Caroline’s story: “I got a note asking me to collect the parcel at the Post Office. I feared I was about to be arrested”
Caroline Burns’ family are risking arrest and stretching their finances to the limit to import the
Cannabis-based drug they are convinced is keeping her alive.
The drug, arriving from Canada, costs between £1000 and £1500 a month and, they believe, has helped shrink her brain tumor.
Her dad, Pat O’Hara, 63, a retired fire fighter and assistant divisional officer, says he once feared arrest when he was asked to collect the regular package from the post office.
Pat, from Cumbernauld, said: “Instead of it coming to my home, I got a note telling me to collect it from the post office.
“I wondered if I would be arrested when I turned up.
“But instead, I was asked to pay £15 VAT on the package.
“It was covered in Customs stickers.
“The delivery arrives described as a different product, and not cannabis. We are law-abiding people who are not comfortable importing cannabis.
“But I don’t know a parent who wouldn’t go to drastic measures, to save their child.” Caroline, mum to Jack, said: “I am so lucky to have such a loving family.
“My husband Gary, an energy sector consultant, also works tirelessly to keep me alive,” Caroline also gets Sativex on a private prescription, costing £500 a year.
The drug showed increased survival in a small trial of 21 people with Caroline’s brain tumor shrinking by 26%
The family welcomes the government review into medical cannabis, announced last week.
“We want it to be quick and efficient because desperately ill people need that,” Pat added.
He is also exploring other ways to get Caroline the drug legally.
Cannabis oil itself is illegal to possess, supply or use.
The law changed to recognize a type called CBD as a medicine.
This is down to scientific studies into its use.
The THC type, which has psychotropic effects that get people high, is not.
Caroline takes both THC and CBD along with the drug Sativex.
She continues to attend The Beatson cancer unit in Glasgow. Regular scans monitor her progress.
Struan’s story: “I promised my late wife I’d do everything to help our son”
Dad-of-two, Struan Robertson, from Haddington, East Lothian, is using imported cannabis oil from the USA for his teenage son, Max.
The 16-year-old has a genetic condition called Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and suffers major seizures.
Standard anti-convulsants have failed to stop them.
Struan, 51, gave up his full-time offshore engineer job to look after Max after his wife, Lorraine, died age 43, from cancer last year.
“I promised Lorraine I would do everything I could to make life easier for Max,” said Struan.
“We are living on benefits and barely able to survive after buying the cannabis oil.
“Max’s seizures have decreased on this oil.
“We just want the government review to give medical cannabis the go-ahead and help youngsters like Max.
“What parent wouldn’t want to save their child?”
Brenda’s story: “I felt defeated, done. But since taking cannabis oil I feel so well”
Brenda Davidson, 56, from Nairn, believes medical cannabis has hugely improved her sciatica.
The care worker says she was on the point of giving up work because her back pain was so severe.
She said: “I worked in a cafe at the time and couldn’t stand for long. I felt defeated and done.
“But since taking CBD cannabis oil I have improved hugely. I have even changed jobs to becoming a caregiver, I feel so well now.”
She spends £55 for a supply that will last her from six to nine months.
Police: Legalize it for patients
Cannabis-based drugs should be allowed for medical use, according to Scotland’s frontline police.
But Calum Steele, general secretary of the Scottish Police Federation, warned of potential consequences of legalizing the drug for recreational use.
It follows Home Secretary Sajid Javid announcing a review of the medicinal use of cannabis. Mr Javid has stressed cannabis should remain banned for recreational use.
Mr Steele said: “There are more than 400 components contained within cannabis. If there are health benefits from various individual or combined components, it seems illogical they are not utilized.
“The issue of cannabis and its health benefits or potential health benefits need to be taken apart from the question of whether they should be legalized for recreational use.”
Mr Steele said any suggestion that criminal activities associated with cannabis being illegal would disappear with decriminalization was overly simplistic and optimistic.