The marijuana plant contains at
least 60 different chemical compounds, only one of which gets a
smoker high. GW Pharmaceuticals Plc (GWP) says one of the other 59
shows promise in treating Type 2 diabetes.
In a mid-stage study, an experimental drug, currently known
by its candidate name GWP42004, helped improve the pancreas’s
ability to produce insulin and led to a drop in blood sugar
levels between meals, among other findings, according to the
London-based company. GW plans to publish the results of that
trial this year.
GW’s drug is just one front in a wider effort to find
better treatments for diabetes, a malady that afflicted 371
million people and killed 4.8 million worldwide in 2012,
according to the International Diabetes Federation. Although
it’s still years away from regulatory approval and skeptics
question whether it will ever get there, the treatment may slow
the progression of the illness and prolong the time before
diabetics need to take insulin shots.
“For Type 2 diabetes patients, after a number of years,
all oral therapies fail, requiring them to take insulin,” said
Mike Cawthorne, director of metabolic research at the University
of Buckingham and a paid consultant to GW. With GWP42004, “they
could potentially be controlled on oral therapy for a longer
period of time and wouldn’t need to take injections,” said
Cawthorne, who led the team at GlaxoSmithKline Plc that
discovered Avandia, once the world’s best-selling diabetes pill.
People with type 2 diabetes don’t produce enough insulin, a
hormone that helps the body use or store blood sugar, or can’t
use the insulin properly. The illness, the most common form of
diabetes, often strikes people over the age of 40, and is tied
to obesity and sedentary lifestyles.
The market for drugs to treat diabetes is likely to grow to
more than $58 billion in 2018 from $35 billion in 2012, Standard
Poor’s wrote in an October report.
GW Pharma is also developing drugs to treat schizophrenia,
ulcerative colitis, and epilepsy from cannabinoids taken from
its own supply of marijuana grown in an undisclosed location in
southeast England. The company’s first commercialized drug,
introduced in mid-2011, is Sativex, which treats muscle spasms
in multiple sclerosis patients.
The diabetes drug could be dimming switches in the body
called cannabinoid receptors to stimulate the ability to respond
to insulin, Cawthorne said. Alternatively, the drug may be
helping to release GLP-1, a hormone that also increases insulin
sensitivity, he said.
GW plans to start a follow-up study this year. One possible
hurdle is that the treatment faces comparison to Sanofi’s
unsuccessful obesity drug Acomplia, which worked on the same
cannabinoid receptors, said Stephen Wright, GW’s director of
research. Acomplia was pulled from the market in 2008 because of
side effects including suicide and depression.
“The bar is possibly higher for cannabinoids because of
Acomplia,” Wright said in an interview.
GW has fallen 17 percent to 49.25 pence this year in London
trading, giving the company a market value of 87.4 million
pounds ($133.4 million).
In animal studies and in the small mid-stage study, the
diabetes drug appeared to preserve the mass and function of
cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, said Cawthorne.
Even so, GW must show the drug has an impact on insulin
resistance to slow the progression of the disease, said Sam Fazeli, a Bloomberg Industries analyst in London. Ultimately,
the company must prove that it controls blood sugar levels.
If successful, the drug will likely be taken in combination
with other therapies such as metformin, the most commonly used
medicine to lower blood sugar, and a class of drugs called DPP-4
inhibitors, which also help lower glucose levels, Cawthorne
Given the small size of the study– just 35 patients taking
GWP42004, early stage of research, and difficulty of developing
diabetes drugs, any projections of eventual success are
premature, said Samir Devani, an analyst at Nomura Code
Securities Ltd. who rates the company “neutral,” said in a
Regulators are also wary of cardiovascular risks in
diabetes drugs. Glaxo’s Avandia was withdrawn from the market in
Europe in 2010 and sales were limited in the U.S. because of an
increased risk of heart attacks. The Food and Drug
Administration in February rejected Novo Nordisk A/S (NOVOB)’s new
insulin Tresiba, demanding a new study to assess the heart
“In diabetes, you need a massive investment, and people
are acutely aware of the challenges,” Devani said.
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Cannabis Drug for Diabetes Treads Ground Where Sanofi Failed
David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
GW Pharmaceuticals Plc’s Director of Research Stephen Wright
Simon Jarrett via Bloomberg