Cannabis-based medicine given go-ahead to treat MS patients

Sufferers in the UK from multiple sclerosis and possibly rheumatoid arthritis, will welcome the news that they will soon be able to obtain an unlicensed, cannabis-based medicine on prescription to treat their illness.

The British Home Office will allow the mouth spray drug to be imported for individual patients in exceptional cases, provided their doctor believes they will benefit.

But before any patient can be treated on the NHS, local health trusts will also have to agree to pay for the £4-a-day medicine.

This decision is the second example within weeks of patient power forcing authorities to allow wider access to unlicensed drugs; the use of Herceptin for early stage breast cancer was the first and it has raised questions about how far politicians will allow the boundaries to be pushed over safety and efficacy rules.

It seems that hundreds of patients already involved in trials will be allowed to remain on the drug on compassionate grounds.

As yet it is unclear how many of the estimated 85,000 MS patients might benefit, although some are thought to take cannabis illegally to relieve their symptoms.

The drug, Sativex, is made by GW Pharmaceuticals from a combination of plant extracts using nearly equal measures of tetrahydrocannibol (THC) and cannabidiol, also present in cannabis.

The Home Office sanctioned imports of these from Canada.

GW Pharmaceuticals is after a licence in Britain to use the drug to treat spasticity, the painful stiffness linked to MS, but regulators want more proof that it works.

Further trial results are expected next year, but the company says they have already seen encouraging results in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, which affects about 600,000 people.

Mike O'Donovan, chief executive of the Multiple Sclerosis Society, says many people will now have the opportunity to try the drug which could significantly improve their quality of life.

The society hopes it will not be long before it is licensed for NHS prescription.

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