B.C. Cancer to lead first national cannabis clinical trial for symptom relief

PAMELA FAYERMAN January 15, 2019

Recruitment for the 48-day trial in 150 patients will begin soon after the expected Health Canada and ethics approval is obtained. Patients in Vancouver, Abbotsford, Prince George, Victoria, Calgary, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Kingston and Toronto will be enrolled in the trial investigating whether cannabis properties reduce cancer-related symptoms including pain, sleep disturbance, anxiety and nausea.

Funding of about $1 million for the randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study is coming from private donors to the BC Cancer Foundation; they’ve asked to remain anonymous. The cannabis oil-based products to be used will be donated by the Whistler Medical Marijuana Corp., one of the country’s first organic producers. The company has just been sold to Aurora Cannabis Inc. in a $175-million deal that has made headlines this week.

Dr. Pippa Hawley, a palliative care specialist and medical director of the provincial pain and symptom management program at B.C. Cancer, will lead the trial. She’s been providing authorizations for medical cannabis to patients for many years. 

In an interview, Hawley said Canada’s legalization of marijuana paved the way for the study that should help answer whether patients’ anecdotal reports of benefits are justified by the evidence.

“My goal is to be able to provide a useful guide to patients and health care professionals,” said Hawley. “I want to be able to give them practical information about what could work.”

Prior to designing the trial methodology, Hawley and her collaborators circulated a survey to 3,000 patients who saw a cancer specialist at any one of the agency’s clinics across B.C. on a single day last summer. Patients were asked if they were using cannabis for symptom relief and if they had ever used cannabis. Eight hundred patients responded to the survey; a quarter said they were currently using cannabis products for cancer-related symptom control and another quarter said they had used it in the past, mostly for recreational purposes.