The marijuana plant contains at least 60 different chemical compounds, only one of which gets a smoker high. GW Pharmaceuticals Plc says one of the other 59 shows promise in treating Type 2 diabetes.
In a mid-stage study, an experimental drug, currently known by its candidate name GWP42004, helped improve the pancreas’s ability to produce insulin and led to a drop in blood sugar levels between meals, among other findings, according to the London-based company. GW plans to publish the results of that trial this year.
GW’s drug is just one front in a wider effort to find better treatments for diabetes, a malady that afflicted 371 million people and killed 4.8 million worldwide in 2012, according to the International Diabetes Federation. Although it’s still years away from regulatory approval and skeptics question whether it will ever get there, the treatment may slow the progression of the illness and prolong the time before diabetics need to take insulin shots.
“For Type 2 diabetes patients, after a number of years, all oral therapies fail, requiring them to take insulin,” said Mike Cawthorne, director of metabolic research at the University of Buckingham and a paid consultant to GW. With GWP42004, “they could potentially be controlled on oral therapy for a longer period of time and wouldn’t need to take injections,” said Cawthorne, who led the team at GlaxoSmithKline Plc that discovered Avandia, once the world’s best-selling diabetes pill.
People with type 2 diabetes don’t produce enough insulin, a hormone that helps the body use or store blood sugar, or can’t use the insulin properly. The illness, the most common form of diabetes, often strikes people over the age of 40, and is tied to obesity and sedentary lifestyles.
The market for drugs to treat diabetes is likely to grow to more than $58 billion in 2018 from $35 billion in 2012, Standard & Poor’s wrote in an October report.
GW Pharma is also developing drugs to treat schizophrenia, ulcerative colitis, and epilepsy from cannabinoids taken from its own supply of marijuana grown in an undisclosed location in southeast England. The company’s first commercialized drug, introduced in mid-2011, is Sativex, which treats muscle spasms in multiple sclerosis patients.
The diabetes drug could be dimming switches in the body called cannabinoid receptors to stimulate the ability to respond to insulin, Cawthorne said. Alternatively, the drug may be helping to release GLP-1, a hormone that also increases insulin sensitivity, he said.
GW plans to start a follow-up study this year. One possible hurdle is that the treatment faces comparison to Sanofi’s unsuccessful obesity drug Acomplia, which worked on the same cannabinoid receptors, said Stephen Wright, GW’s director of research. Acomplia was pulled from the market in 2008 because of side effects including suicide and depression.
“The bar is possibly higher for cannabinoids because of Acomplia,” Wright said in an interview.
GW has fallen 17 percent to 49.25 pence this year in London trading, giving the company a market value of 87.4 million pounds ($133.4 million).
In animal studies and in the small mid-stage study, the diabetes drug appeared to preserve the mass and function of cells in the pancreas that produce insulin, said Cawthorne.
Even so, GW must show the drug has an impact on insulin resistance to slow the progression of the disease, said Sam Fazeli, a Bloomberg Industries analyst in London. Ultimately, the company must prove that it controls blood sugar levels.
If successful, the drug will likely be taken in combination with other therapies such as metformin, the most commonly used medicine to lower blood sugar, and a class of drugs called DPP-4 inhibitors, which also help lower glucose levels, Cawthorne said.
Given the small size of the study-- just 35 patients taking GWP42004, early stage of research, and difficulty of developing diabetes drugs, any projections of eventual success are premature, said Samir Devani, an analyst at Nomura Code Securities Ltd. who rates the company “neutral,” said in a phone interview.
Regulators are also wary of cardiovascular risks in diabetes drugs. Glaxo’s Avandia was withdrawn from the market in Europe in 2010 and sales were limited in the U.S. because of an increased risk of heart attacks. The Food and Drug Administration in February rejected Novo Nordisk A/S’s new insulin Tresiba, demanding a new study to assess the heart risks.
“In diabetes, you need a massive investment, and people are acutely aware of the challenges,” Devani said.