Active ingredient of cannabis has no effect on the progression of multiple sclerosis

June 15, 2012

The first large non-commercial study to investigate whether the main active constituent of cannabis (tetrahydrocannabinol or THC) is effective in slowing the course of progressive multiple sclerosis (MS) shows that there is no evidence to suggest this; although benefits were noted for those at the lower end of the disability scale.

The CUPID (Cannabinoid Use in Progressive Inflammatory ) study was carried out by researchers from the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry (PCMD), Plymouth University. The study was funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and managed by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) on behalf of the MRC-NIHR partnership, the Multiple Sclerosis Society and the Trust.

The preliminary results of CUPID are to be presented by lead researcher Professor John Zajicek at the Association of British Neurologists' Annual Meeting in Brighton on Tuesday 29th May.

CUPID enrolled nearly 500 people with from 27 centres around the UK, and has taken eight years to complete. People with were randomised to receive either THC capsules or identical placebo capsules for three years, and were carefully followed to see how their MS changed over this period. The two main outcomes of the trial were a disability scale administered by neurologists (the Expanded Disability Status Scale), and a patient report scale of the impact of MS on people with the condition (the Impact Scale 29).

Overall the study found no evidence to support an effect of THC on MS progression in either of the main outcomes. However, there was some evidence to suggest a beneficial effect in participants who were at the lower end of the disability scale at the time of enrolment but, as the benefit was only found in a small group of people rather than the whole population, further studies will be needed to assess the robustness of this finding. One of the other findings of the trial was that MS in the study population as a whole progressed slowly, more slowly than expected. This makes it more challenging to find a treatment effect when the aim of the treatment is that of slow progression.

As well as evaluating the potential neuroprotective effects and safety of THC over the long-term, one of the aims of the CUPID study was to improve the way that clinical trial research is done by exploring newer methods of measuring MS and using the latest statistical methods to make the most of every piece of information collected. This analysis will continue for several months. The CUPID study will therefore provide important information about conducting further large scale clinical trials in MS.

Professor John Zajicek, Professor of Clinical Neuroscience at PCMD, Plymouth University, said: "To put this study into context: current treatments for MS are limited, either being targeted at the immune system in the early stages of the disease or aimed at easing specific symptoms such as muscle spasms, fatigue or bladder problems. At present there is no treatment available to slow MS when it becomes progressive. Progression of MS is thought to be due to death of nerve cells, and researchers around the world are desperately searching for treatments that may be 'neuroprotective'. Laboratory experiments have suggested that certain cannabis derivatives may be neuroprotective."

He added: "Overall our research has not supported laboratory based findings and shown that, although there is a suggestion of benefit to those at the lower end of the disability scale when they joined CUPID, there is little evidence to suggest that THC has a long term impact on the slowing of ."

Dr Doug Brown, Head of Biomedical Research at the MS Society, said: "There are currently no treatments for people with progressive MS to slow or stop the worsening of disability. The MS Society is committed to supporting research in this area and this was an important study for us to fund. While this study sadly suggests THC is ineffective at slowing the course of progressive MS, we will not stop our search for effective treatments. We are encouraged by the possibility shown by this study that THC may have potential benefits for some people with and we welcome further investigation in this area."

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