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Cannabis-based medicine to be tested in Alzheimer's trial

Posted on 21/02/2019

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Researchers from the NIHR Maudsley BRC are to lead a pioneering new study into a cannabis-based treatment for people living with dementia.

Alzheimer’s Research UK has awarded over £250,000 for the landmark phase II clinical trial of Sativex®, a cannabis-based medicine licenced in the UK. The drug has already been found to be safe in people and has been approved for use in the treatment of muscle stiffness and tightness experienced by people with multiple sclerosis. However, Sativex® is not currently licensed in the UK for any other indication, including treatment of the symptoms of dementia. The Sativex® for the Treatment of AgitatioN in Dementia (STAND) trial will now test whether it is feasible to treat agitation in people with Alzheimer’s disease with the drug.

Dementia, caused by diseases like Alzheimer’s, is not limited to the loss of memory and thinking skills and people with the condition can experience a wide range of symptoms, including changes to their behaviour. Approximately half of the 850,000 people living with dementia will experience symptoms of agitation or aggression. This can often be one of the most challenging aspects of the illness, both for the person with dementia and those caring for them.

In November 2018 the government moved cannabis-based products for medicinal from Schedule 1 to 2 – enabling their prescription by specialist clinicians. Sativex®, however, is a Schedule 4 drug given its regulatory approval by MHRA in 2010 and its established quality, safety and efficacy.

Sativex® is a peppermint-flavoured mouth spray that contains a 1:1 ratio of two key cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant – delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). The plants are grown under a Home Office licence in the UK in highly controlled and secure conditions which, taken alongside high-tech manufacturing processes, ensures batch to batch consistency in each bottle.

Chris Albertyn, Research Portfolio Lead at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King's College London, developed the proposal and will run the trial under the supervision of leading Old Age Psychiatrist, Professor Dag Aarsland, who leads the NIHR Maudsley BRC’s work on dementia.

The study team will recruit volunteers with dementia between 55 and 90 years old who are living in care homes and have symptoms of agitation or aggression. The STAND trial volunteers will take the medication for four weeks and researchers will compare the results from those taking Sativex® and those taking a placebo.

Professor Dag Aarsland said: “While people most often associate Alzheimer’s disease with memory problems, this is just one aspect of a complex condition that can affect people in different ways. Many people with Alzheimer’s can become agitated or aggressive, and this can pose difficulties for the person with the condition and those closest to them. Current treatments for behavioural and psychiatric symptoms of dementia are very limited, and we desperately need to develop alternatives. Doctors sometimes prescribe anti-psychotic medications, and while these drugs can have important benefits, these need to be weighed against the risk of very serious side effects.

One of the key questions the STAND trial will answer is whether it is practical to give someone with dementia a drug through a mouth spray when they may be exhibiting severe symptoms of agitation and aggression. We will also get some indication of whether Sativex® is effective at reducing symptoms, although larger studies will be needed to get firm evidence of this.”

Dr David Reynolds, Chief Scientific Officer of Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “With no new dementia treatments in over 15 years, it is vital that we test a wide range of approaches to find effective ways to help people living with the condition. While a major focus for dementia research is to develop drugs that slow or stop the progression of the physical diseases that cause dementia, what really matters is that a medicine benefits people’s day-to-day lives.

The STAND trial opens the door to a treatment that may help to alleviate an extremely challenging set of symptoms, and Alzheimer’s Research UK is extremely grateful to our supporters for making this important work possible.”

Contact

For further media information please contact: Amy Edmunds, Communications and Engagement Manager, NIHR Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and King’s College London, amy.edmunds@kcl.ac.uk / 020 7848 0495 or 07500 224 906

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