A few years ago, GW Pharmaceuticals aimed to have the first Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved cannabis-based medicine to treat people with rare types of epilepsy. After years of clinical trials, they realized this goal in the summer of 2018 when the FDA approved Epidiolex, their CBD-based medicine. They now hope to go through the same process for approval if their latest medication is found useful in the treatment of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
“When you look at these – loss of cognitive function, poor socializing skills, poor language skills – what you’re looking at is a phenotype very similar to autism,” GW founder Dr. Geoffrey Guy told Gupta during a rare tour greenhouse tour. “In my mind, epilepsy and autism-type presentations are on the same continuum.”
The new clinical trial is being conducted at Montefiore Medical Center in New York in partnership with GW Pharmaceuticals. Unlike most cannabis-based medicines, the GW Pharmaceuticals medicine being studied utilizes a cannabinoid called cannabidivarin (or CBDV), which is closely related to CBD. This would be the first study to look at a cannabinoid other than THC or CBD in the treatment of autism – but it’s CBDV’s effects in treating epilepsy that lead researchers to believe it would be beneficial to ASD patients.
“And that was one of our thoughts, why this CBDV could be helpful,” Hollander said. “Because if it helps with epilepsy and it helps in terms of decreasing the spike activity, we might also get improvement in the some of the aggression, or the self-injury, or the temper tantrums.”
In many states where cannabis is legal for medicinal purposes, autism is one of the qualifying conditions listed by law. However, there are still millions who go without that treatment option, even though it can be potentially life-changing in some cases. ASD patients who are medicating within legal states are generally using CBD and THC isolates or whole plant cannabis, which provides a full spectrum of cannabinoids and terpenes. Success has varied, but many seem to find relief from some of the worst symptoms caused by autism.
“In some of the animal models that are similar to autism, it was found that CBDV had important effects on social functioning, on decreasing seizures, on increasing cognitive function, and in reducing compulsive or repetitive behavior,” Hollander said. “So for that reason, we wanted to apply that to autism.”
Though getting FDA approval for this medicine is still years away because the clinical trials are still in the earliest phase, it still provides hope to many that there could be a safer and more viable treatment option available to them soon. Many parents and ASD patients have tried a multitude of drugs to treat one symptom only to create new ones because of the side effects of those medications – which is why many have turned to cannabis as an alternative. Having a cannabis-based medicine with the singular goal of treating autism could be life-altering for many.