Great news for epilepsy patients: A new study by NYU Langone Comprehensive Epilepsy Center found that some children and adults with treatment-resistant epilepsy may find relief from cannabidiol, a compound in medical marijuana that does not contain psychoactive properties. Though there have been many anecdotal reports of medical marijuana as beneficial to epilepsy patients, this study by Dr. Orrin Devinsky is the first of its kind. 

The study included 213 participants between two and 42 years old with a median age of 11 years; participants were prescribed cannabidiol in a liquid daily dose that was gradually increased up to a potential maximum of 25mg/kg over 12 weeks. For the 137 patients who completed the study, the number of seizures decreased by an average of 54 percent throughout the 12-week period.

We talked to Dr. Devinsky about the study, and why he thinks it can mean huge changes for those with epilepsy. 

Can you tell me more about what makes this study unique?

What’s unique about this study is that it’s certainly the largest trial of a medical cannabis product for which we know that the product is a 99.9 percent cannabidiol, non-psychoactive ingredient. We have 10 different centers that participated, so we enrolled a total of 213 patients and 137 of them were treated for three months, which is kind of the standard duration for most epilepsy studies.

Would you say this treatment is unprecedented?

It is in the field of epilepsy. Medical marijuana products have been used in other disorders in European countries, but not for epilepsy and though a lot of people are being treated with medical marijuana products, you still don’t know what’s in there; it can vary from batch to batch. The standards for a drug company tend to be a lot higher than for the artisanal producers in a state like Colorado.

This product is from a pharmaceutical company?

Yes, from T.W. Pharmaceutical and it’s from the U.K. They already make a compound that’s approved in 20 or more countries and Canada. We’re using products that are 100 percent cannabidiol.  

Do you think this study came about because marijuana has become legalized in parts of the U.S.?

That might partly be the impetus for the interest because there were reports from states like Colorado where they saw dramatic improvements in children with epilepsy, and that was part of the excitement that led us to be interested in trying this and T.W. Pharma to be interested in trying it.

When will the medication become available to the masses?

This was an open label study so the investigator, co-investigators, patients and parents knew they were receiving the medication. We didn’t do a placebo group. It would be hard to imagine it would be available before one-and-a-half to two years. The FDA won’t approve a medication without data from a randomized double-blind placebo controlled trial.

Are there any side effects from the medication?

The major side effects we’ve seen are tiredness – that’s the most common one. Other side effects we did see in children included weight loss and diarrhea because it’s administered as an oil, so some kids had a response to the oil. We saw decreased appetite in over 10 percent of patients. I don’t think we’ll know until we get that double-blind study if it’s as effective as its been in this study. I think it might be a huge for people with epilepsy but until we get this data I think we just won’t know.

Are you excited about your findings?

I like the idea of being agnostic until we get the double-blind. I think parents are excited. I don’t think it’s going to be something that makes every child seizure-free but I do think it has the potential to be a very effective therapy for many children and I’m excited to see its potential.

Do you think your study will help change the perception of medical marijuana as something that's not serious?

I think the evidence has been coming in for a while that there are medical benefits for marijuana. There’s good evidence that THC can relieve nausea for people with cancer and HIV and multiple sclerosis. We need to do more scientific studies and we’ll probably find there are more medical benefits in cannabis products. We just need to see the data.