Could medical cannabis help arthritis patients? Halifax researcher wants to find out

WATCH: Researchers are recruiting 20 osteoarthritis patients in the Maritimes to participate in a Health Canada approved clinical trial involving medical cannabis. Julia Wong reports.

HALIFAX – Researchers are recruiting 20 people in Halifax to take part in a “groundbreaking” study — a Health Canada approved medical cannabis clinical trial.

Dr. Mary Lynch, a co-primary investigator and the lead investigator for the Halifax portion of the study, is looking for patients who are 50 and over with osteoarthritis of the knee. The study is also recruiting in Montreal.

Osteoarthritis is a form of arthritis that affects the cartilage and occurs when the cartilage begins to wear away, according to the Arthritis Society.

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“This is a study looking at the use of vaporized marijuana in the management of osteoarthritis of the knee,” said Lynch, who is an anesthesia professor with Dalhousie University and director of research in pain management with the Nova Scotia Health Authority.

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“It’s a very interesting study because it’s the first one to really compare various types of marijuana with differing amounts of THC and CBD. We’re very interested to see what the different types of marijuana will do on pain and osteoarthritis of the knee.”

THC and CBD are different ingredients in cannabis.

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Lynch said the study will involve eight visits to the hospital. The visits will involve exposure to six different types of marijuana, with varying levels of THC and CBD, through a vaporizer.

“We will watch them for three hours after exposure to see how they do. How are their pain levels? How do they feel? Are they experiencing any adverse effects? Are they feeling drugged?”

She said the main purpose of the study is to investigate new ways to treat pain and inflammation.

“We need new strategies for pain and new strategies for inflammation that do not have the same side effects as the drugs we have available currently,” she said.

Concerns from the medical community

Dr. Gus Grant, the registrar and CEO of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Nova Scotia, said he supports more research into medical cannabis but admits he has some concerns.

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“The comment has to be made that, isn’t this an unusual situation?” he said.

“Isn’t this a situation that sounds like the cart being before the horse. We’re now doing primary research on a substance that’s already been approved, that’s already been in the toolbox of physicians.”

Grant said it seems medical marijuana has circumvented the normal procedures and protocols, putting physicians in a difficult situation.

“It reflects the extraordinary and unusual circumstances of medical marijuana — that it has been a substance that is now for the medical profession to use even though the substance itself has not gone through the normal testing that other medications have,” he said.

“The medical profession finds itself in the unusual situation of now trying to identify uses for a substance that has already been approved rather than vice versa. I have tremendous sympathy for physicians who are being asked to authorize marijuana for medical purposes given the relative absence of appropriate research.”

Life with osteoarthritis

Craig Bethune, 49, of Halifax was diagnosed with osteoarthritis five years ago.

“I’m a fairly active guy. Probably where it’s affected me the most is not being able to do the sports I love. Hockey is pretty well impossible,” he said.

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Bethune’s osteoarthritis is focused mainly on his hips though he said the pain radiates down to his knees as well.

He describes the condition as a “dull, achy pain”.

“It can be sharp and almost unbearable depending on what physical activity I’ve done,” he said.

“It sometimes feels like … a sharp knife basically being driven into my hip.”

While Bethune probably would not use medical cannabis as a treatment option for personal reasons, he supports the research being done locally.

“The most research that can be done on things that are either holistic or natural that can ease the progression of osteoarthritis of can ease the pain of osteoarthritis, I’m all for that. I think it’s important the medical community be involved in the research and [makes] sure the studies are done properly.”

Looking for treatment alternatives

Susan Tilley-Russell, the executive director of the Arthritis Society – Atlantic region, said that there are 212,000 people in Nova Scotia living with arthritis and the most common type is osteoarthritis.

“I think we’re always looking for new treatments, new options to help people manage their pain. I think the thing that’s most important to us is to find out for any treatment, is it safe and is it effective,” she said.

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The Arthritis Society is not funding the research but she said it supports it.

“We’ll be watching the study quite closely and we’re very excited to see the results that come out of it.”

Trial start date this fall

Meanwhile, Lynch said the trial is important on many levels.

“I think it would be really important for people to know there is a lot of science behind the whole field of cannabinoids. We definitely need a lot more research. There are  many more questions to be answered and it’s very important to continue this kind of research,” she said

“Physicians need and nurse practitioners need that information to know what to prescribe, how much to prescribe, what are the potential adverse effects.”

“I’m delighted to be involved in this study. I am excited to start collecting information that physicians have been calling for for years. It’s been a long time coming.”

Lynch hopes to start the study in September and said results will likely be collected by the end of next year.

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