On June 25, 2018, the FDA, for the first time, approved a cannabis-derived drug aimed at patients ages 2 and older that are suffering from two specific types of epilepsy. The drug, Epidiolex, is produced by UK-based GW Pharmaceuticals and made from a purified form of CBD (cannabidiol) oil. The drug has been found to reduce seizures in patients with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Dravet syndrome without the side-effects caused by typical epilepsy drugs.
This move by the FDA brings hope to many suffering from epilepsy as it can potentially result in wider acceptance for CBD oil as a means to manage the debilitating symptoms of their condition.
What Is Epilepsy?
Epilepsy is a chronic seizure disorder that affects the nervous system. It is marked by recurrent and unprovoked seizures. More than 3 million people in the United States have epilepsy, with 150,000 new diagnoses every year. It is estimated that one in twenty-six Americans will develop epilepsy at some point in their life. When someone suffers from at least two seizures that were not caused by some known and reversible conditions such as very low blood sugar or alcohol addiction withdrawal, they are diagnosed with epilepsy.
Epileptic seizures may be a family tendency or they may be related to the following:
- injuries in the brain caused by accident
- lack of oxygen to an infant’s brain during childbirth
- brain tumors
- infection or illness during pregnancy that might have affected the developing fetus
- poisonings such as lead poisoning, alcohol poisoning or drug abuse
- infections that affect the brain such as encephalitis or meningitis
However, the cause is more often unknown. Six out of ten patients have epilepsy with no known causes. Most people suffering from epilepsy have more than one type of seizure that may be coupled with other neurological symptoms. Some patients with similar clinical history, family history and outlook are grouped under a specific epilepsy syndrome.
The electrical events that produce the seizures occur in the brain. The event’s location, the way it spreads, how long the event lasts and how much of the brain is affected all have severe effects and can determine the type of seizure the individual experiences. Needless to say, recurrent and unprovoked seizures can greatly affect a person’s relationships, work, and safety.
How Is Epilepsy Treated?
To treat epilepsy, doctors prescribe drugs that aim to reduce seizures and ease related symptoms. Anticonvulsants that calm the brain’s hyperactivity are commonly prescribed. A major downside to anticonvulsants, however, is the adverse effects that tend to come with these. Most patients suffer from one or several of the following side effects:
- loss of appetite
- blurred vision
- memory problems
- impaired coordination
- skin rashes
- weight gain
The commonly prescribed epilepsy medications can affect patients differently. Some people may not experience any of the above side effects, but those who do find that their lives are severely altered and limited. This is why there is a constant search for better treatment alternatives that not only work but can offer epilepsy sufferers more freedom to live their life.
The CBD Oil for Epilepsy Option
In 2011, then 5-year-old Charlotte Figi’s family had almost accepted defeat. The little girl suffered from Dravet syndrome and was having an average of 300 grand mal seizures every week. Her doctors have told her family there was nothing more they could do for Charlotte whose symptoms began when she was just three months old. Though prepared for the worst, the Figi’s had not completely given up. Having exhausted every treatment option for their child, they turned to medical marijuana. They bought a small amount of marijuana strain that has low THC but high CBD had a friend extract the cannabidiol and started Charlotte on a small dose. It worked! When their supply ran out, the Figis reached out to the Stanley brothers, dubbed the Robin Hoods of marijuana, and they developed a strain now known as Charlotte’s Web.
Charlotte Figi’s story has brought CBD at the forefront of the cannabis scene, giving hope to the thousands of children affected by epilepsy.
CBD and Seizure Control
Cannabidiol (CBD) is a cannabis compound that does not have psychoactive properties, unlike the more popular cannabis compound tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which induces euphoric effects.
Cannabis has anticonvulsant properties and can reduce the frequency as well as the intensity of seizures in some patients. One of the reasons marijuana is an effective epilepsy treatment is the compound CBD.
A study conducted in early 2017 involving 120 children and teenagers with Dravet Syndrome found that “cannabidiol is an effective anti-seizure drug for this disorder and this age group.”
The group was divided in half – one group received cannabidiol and the other group a placebo.
Over a period of 14 weeks, the CBD group saw a significant decrease in the number of seizures – from 12.4 to just 5.9 seizures a month. While the placebo group saw very little change – from 14.9 to 14.1 seizures a month.
Other studies have been conducted that proved cannabidiol effective in inhibiting the number of epileptic seizures like this study from Mexico and this study conducted by the Children’s Hospital of Colorado.
FDA’s Approval of Epidiolex
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made history when it approved Epidiolex on June 25, 2018, a drug derived from cannabidiol. The FDA, however, reiterated that this approval does not mean that marijuana, in general, is legalized.
“This is an important medical advance. But it’s also important to note that this is not an approval of marijuana or all of its components. This is the approval of one specific CBD medication for a specific use. And it was based on well-controlled clinical trials evaluating the use of this compound in the treatment of a specific condition. Moreover, this is a purified form of CBD. It’s being delivered to patients in a reliable dosage form and through a reproducible route of delivery to ensure that patients derive the anticipated benefits. This is how sound medical science is advanced,” stated FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD.
At the moment, Epidiolex is not yet available for purchase, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) would still need to re-classify the specific compound CBD.
Since cannabidiol is a cannabis compound, it is classified as a Schedule I drug so pharmaceutical companies are not allowed to sell it yet. It is likely though that the DEA will reclassify CBD in the next 90days and change it to a Schedule IV or Schedule V. When re-classified, Epidiolex will become available in pharmacies. As it is a standardized oral solution of cannabis-derived cannabidiol, it can only be sold in pharmacies and not in dispensaries.
Suggested reading: Is CBD Oil Legal? CBD & Its Legality In The U.S.
CBD Oil for Epilepsy – Final Word
Dozens of studies back the effectiveness of the cannabis compound cannabidiol as a treatment for epileptic seizures. CBD is particularly helpful in rare cases of epilepsy that affect many young patients. Thanks to pioneering products like Charlotte’s Web and the recent FDA approval of a cannabis-based drug, the future looks bright for CBD oil products for epilepsy.