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Cannabis benefits mount up for Cambridge science

As regulations become less stringent, the testing of medical marijuana is producing a wealth of data on cannabinoids
As regulations become less stringent, the testing of medical marijuana is producing a wealth of data on cannabinoids

With cannabis now legally available in the UK for medical use, applications are being investigated, so it's timely that Cambridge is hosting a two-part conference on the topic.

The two-part pilot, at The Old Divinity School – on July 7 and August 4 – will see the topic of medical cannabis discussed for the first time in Cambridge.

Organised by CANNTalks – ‘Curating A New Normal’ refers directly to the changes in cannabis reform happening globally – the events are titled ‘Live Talks: A Conversation on Cannabis’. The founders are a collective of scientists, academics, artists, activist disruptors, and influencers.

They describe the occasion as “a deep-dive into the science of the deepest parts of the plant-human relationship, illuminating on the complexities of the plant herself, before moving towards the regulatory changes; as well as exploring the philosophy and the ethics that have been behind prohibition for the last 90 years”.

One of those attending will be Dan Gooding, CEO of Nuformix, the Science Park-based pharmaceutical development company which uses cocrystal technology to unlock therapeutic potential of approved drugs in oncology supportive care and fibrosis.

“The event in Cambridge is very international,” Dan says. “It’s bringing together academics, patients, parents of patients – such as children with epilepsy – and regulators, and there’s a comprehensive list of topics about what’s going on and giving it airtime. We’ll be there!”

There is heightened interest because Nuformix recently signed an agreement with Canadian firm Ebers Tech Inc. Ebers is “backed by leaders from the financial sector focused on the development of superior, differentiated cannabinoid products for a multitude of consumer product and therapeutic applications”.

The agreement – which saw Nuformix’s share price jump 30 per cent – is for the development, licensing and commercialisation of cannabinoid therapeutics and involves “up to £51million of upfront R&D and milestone payments, plus long-term royalties of 20 per cent of net sales medical cannabis”. It includes an upfront payment, with early-stage milestone payments expected this year.

So what’s the fuss about? Well, cannabis is entirely legal in Canada so there’s a healthy market to work with. The market in the US has also opened up to medical cannabis and that’s created interest in the UK.

GW Pharmaceuticals in Histon is already a global leader in developing cannabinoid-based medicines.

From left at Nuformix are Maddy Robinson, Dr Dan Gooding, Joanne Holland and Alex Eberlin. Picture: Keith Heppell
From left at Nuformix are Maddy Robinson, Dr Dan Gooding, Joanne Holland and Alex Eberlin. Picture: Keith Heppell

First off the block is cannabidiol, or CBD, which is an active ingredient in cannabis derived from the hemp plant – and it should be pointed out that this form of medical cannabis has zero THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, which is the ingredient that gives “weed” its psychoactive effects.

“GW recently got the first major approval for CBD to treat epilepsy,” notes Dan. “They extract the CBD from a natural source – a plant.”

GW has two products on sale: Sativex, now available as a prescription medicine, is 50/50 CBD and THC, and is used to treat spasticity associated with MS; and Epidiolex, which is 100 per cent pure CBD and used to treat severe epilepsy.

“Epidiolex was first approved in the US. GW was the first British company to make a success of it and is now racking up further approvals – hopefully Europe will be next.”

However, Dan is not entirely enthused about CBD.

“CBD is unique, though to me it’s probably the least interesting of all cannabinoids. It’s arguably the most abundant but actually has very poor properties for development as a medicine. I believe other cannabinoids have far more to offer, and that’s why we started looking at them a couple of years ago.

"Molecules found in natural products cannot be patented, so how do you differentiate resulting products? That's where we came at it from, working with small molecules to improve their performance using cocrystal technology."

Nuformix’s testing process was an unexpected success.

“A molecule we were supposed to be studying was late turning up so for a week or so I said: 'Let’s fill the time with a cannabinoid and see what happens'. We were able to form cocrystals when I didn't think we'd be able to. We've now seen the technology is applicable to other members of naturally-occuring cannabinoid family," continues Dan. "Once the pure natural product is extracted, we can improve it without changing the molecule itself.”

There’s three markets for cannabis. First is what Dan calls “the classic recreational market, and that’s something we’re not interested in at all”. Then there’s the consumer market, which has seen High Street retailers introduce a range of CDB products – of varying degrees of efficacy, according to Dan, who insists the dosages available in off-the-counter High Street tablets are not high enough dosages. "It's 'let's get a product out' but this is not a good science." When asked about the efficacy of CBD tablets, a well-know health care products firm responded: "We do not sell CBD products for therapeutic benefit as therapeutic products are medicines not consumer products. We retail CBD food supplements that support general wellbeing rather than treat ailments."

CBD is available in liquid and tablet format in the UK
CBD is available in liquid and tablet format in the UK

Finally, the third market is pharma, which sees benefits for various disorders including epilepsy but also other issues – like anxiety and depression.

One of the reasons that legislators have been slow to onboard cannabinoid treatments is because cannabis is seen as a recreational drug and as such its benefits have been masked.

“If you consider the stigma, it's clear that people will quite happily take codeine bought without prescription from the chemists, and they forget the association with heroin, but when it comes to cannabis people get very agitated. Opiates are a good analogy because if you look at what happens with poppies, extracts such codeine and morphine are household names, and companies have done work to improve on them to better treat pain. Medical cannabis in some ways is no different. Within the plant there are hundreds of interesting molecules.”

All Nuformix cocrystal applications for cannabinoids have been sold to Ebers. Whether the end products are in tablet, inhaler, cream or liquid form remains to be seen. So, while the UK regulators scrabble around to keep up, Nuformix is pushing ahead in territories with more coherent policies.

Dan even believes that medical cannabis could help resolve the opioid crisis in the US.

“People are starting to talk about medical cannabis as a solution to the opioid crisis,” he says. “It’s about the management of pain, but opioids are addictive by nature, which is less so for cannabinoids, so if you can get relief from pain through non-addictive cannabinoids, then it makes a lot of sense.”

Perhaps the issue should be added to the list of topics at the Old Divinity Centre’s forum Sunday week.

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