U.K. pharma group's cannabis-based diabetes drug sparks insulin output

GW Pharmaceuticals has expanded mindsets about potential diabetes treatment. In a small midstage study of patients on its pot-based drug candidate, the U.K. drug developer showed improvements in insulin production and other benefits.

As Bloomberg reports, London-based GW has already won approval for a cannabis-based drug called Sativex for combating muscle spasms in multiple sclerosis patients. Derived from pot grown in an undisclosed U.K. location, the company's diabetes candidate GWP42004 is made of one of more than 60 cannabinoids from the plant. And not the one that gets people high. Yet developing a therapy for Type 2 diabetes poses major challenges, particularly for this drug.

Burnt by past drug scandals involving drugs such as GlaxoSmithKline's ($GSK) Avandia, the FDA and other regulators have kept the safety bar on new diabetes therapies sky high and arguably out of reach for the limited R&D budgets of small developers. GW's candidate could encounter added regulatory scrutiny because it targets the same cannabinoid receptors as Sanofi's ($SNY) doomed weight drug Acomplia, which was yanked from the market after cases of suicide and depression in patients on the med, the news service reported.

In just 35 patients in the Phase II study, GWP42004 treatment boosted insulin production and lowered blood sugar between meals, Bloomberg reported. The company's scientists are puzzling out how inhibiting the cannabinoid receptors works in diabetics, yet one of the suspicions is that it could trigger the release of the GLP-1 hormone that improves insulin sensitivity. And early evidence in animals and humans shows that the drug could help preserve insulin-making cells in the pancreas.

The expense and difficulty of later-stage development might cloud the future of GW's diabetes program. Still, pharma companies have shown an interest in new ways of treating the growing diabetes epidemic, which afflicts more than 370 million patients worldwide, according to the International Diabetes Federation. If GW manages to partner this program to help overcome the cost hurdles in the field, its aspirations to break into this multibillion-dollar diabetes market would seem like more than a pipe dream.

- see Bloomberg's article

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