Science & tech

Australian Research Initiative Will Put Medical Cannabis Claims to the Test

Published on October 17, 2016 · Last updated July 28, 2020
Newborn baby little hand hold by adult man hand of his father

Imagine you’ve lived a full life, had a very successful career, and are just beginning to relax and spend time with your grandchildren. But one of those grandchildren is sick. She has Dravet Syndrome, a rare and difficult to treat form of epilepsy. What would you do?

If you were Barry and Joy Lambert, you might donate $33.7 million to Sydney University to research cannabis—a treatment that’s shown potential to transform lives of patients with epilepsy. The unprecedented private donation last year established the Lambert Initiative, which aims to break new ground as to the medical benefits of cannabis, as well as any side effects.

“We believe this investment in the future of Australian science and medicine will provide the much-needed evidence to rapidly advance the use of medicinal cannabinoids in the treatment of childhood epilepsy and other serious illnesses,” Lambert said in a statement about the donation.

The comment is a nod to the feeling among many in the cannabis community that the medicinal benefits of cannabis are already apparent but simply haven’t been verified in the lab. Australian has been hesitant to accept evidence from overseas studies. The Lambert Initiative, which is closely partnered with the New South Wales (NSW) government’s clinical trials through the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research and Innovation, should help address those concerns by providing world-leading Australian research into medicinal cannabis.

Which illnesses will the research focus on? Headed by Professor Iain McGregor, who conducted the first-ever study using NSW-grown cannabis plants, the initiative will focus on how cannabis might be used to treat pediatric epilepsy, cancer, chronic pain, obesity, anorexia, dementia, addiction, and other mental health disorders.

While THC and CBD have long been the focus of research, the Lambert Initiative will also look at some of the less studied cannabinoids in order to determine possible uses in medical treatment.

The initiative’s focus on pediatric epilepsy is evident. Last month it announced the Pediatric Epilepsy Lambert Initiative Cannabinoid Analysis, or PELICAN, which is reaching out to parents who currently treat their children’s epilepsy with cannabis.

Parents treating kids with cannabis is a legally and morally complex area. The frustration of families living with pediatric epilepsy is easy to understand, and available pharmaceutical options aren’t effective for some patients. But dosing cannabis can be difficult without safe access to pharmaceutical-grade products and the guidance of a medical professional—and few parents are willing to say publicly that they use cannabis to treat their young children.

By engaging those parents directly and offering them information about the contents of the cannabis oils and extracts they are using, the initiative will build an understanding of what these substances are and how well they work. At the same time, parents will get accurate and timely information about their treatment plans without having to wait years for the results of a clinical trial.

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As well as its research arm, one of the Lambert Initiative’s stated objectives is to change the public perception of cannabis. Although polls suggest 91 percent of Australians support the legalisation medical purposes, rhetoric from prohibitionist groups like Drug Free Australia contributes to a sometimes fiery public debate around the issue.

Meticulous, well-funded research into new areas—as well as larger replications of smaller studies that show promise—is an important step for legitimizing cannabis across the country. PELICAN is a promising example of what might be achieved when large-scale research is linked to the people it affects.

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