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First national cannabis trial for cancer symptoms being led by BC Cancer

The trial, which began recruiting patients in February, will evaluate the use of cannabis oils for cancer-related symptom management.
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​The first-ever national clinical trial of medical cannabis oil extracts for multiple cancer-related symptoms has started recruiting patients receiving treatment at the BC Cancer – Vancouver and Victoria centres. 

The study will evaluate three cannabis oils, using Health Canada-approved extracts already publicly available, on four cancer-related symptoms: nausea, pain, anxiety, and insomnia. A fourth oil, a placebo, will also be included in the study. 

“Many patients are taking cannabis-based products, in different forms and from multiple sources, some less than ideal,” says lead researcher Dr. Pippa Hawley, medical director, Provincial Pain & Symptom Management and Palliative Care Program at BC Cancer. “We urgently need good trial data to inform this subject, so we can maximize benefits and minimize harms to patients.”

A quarter of BC Cancer patients who participated in two one-day surveys indicated they were currently using cannabis-based medicines. Because cancer-related symptoms are not experienced in isolation, it’s important to study the impact of cannabis-based medicines on the overall set of symptoms; not just one-by-one.  For example, pain may be worsened by insomnia and anxiety, or anxiety may be intensified by nausea and pain. 

Although cannabis products are legally available, health care professionals may not be comfortable providing clinical guidance on the use of cannabis products due to a lack of clear scientific evidence. The 48-day study is currently open at BC Cancer centres in Vancouver and Victoria, along with other centres across Canada. It is expected the results will allow clinicians to make informed decisions about which products patients could take, or to avoid, and which doses might provide therapeutic effects for people living with cancer. 

“Cannabis products have shown potential for benefit in many cancer-related symptoms, including pain, sleep disturbance, anxiety, and nausea,” says Dr. Hawley. “However, each of these symptoms is subjective and can impact other symptoms. It is therefore necessary to study the impact of cannabis-based medicines on symptoms cancer patients experience as a whole, as well as trying to tease out effects on individual symptoms.”

The study will evaluate the use of cannabis oils for cancer-related symptom management, not as a treatment for cancer. The oils will come from a licensed producer, which means they follow very strict guidelines overseen by Health Canada. Using oils for this study allows for accurate dosing and removes the risk of harm from inhalation. The study is double-blind, meaning that neither the participants nor their doctors will know which bottles contain which products. 

“I am proud of the patient-oriented methodology that we’re using in this research,” says Dr. Hawley. “Patients who participate in the study will self-report multiple symptoms, which reflects the way patients anecdotally report on their experience with cannabis. We are also the first big trial using extracts already available for patients, which is a significant achievement.”

For more information on medical cannabis, including anyone considering participating in this study, please visit the BC Cancer website on Medical Cannabis: What Patients with Cancer Need to Know.

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