Cannabis research in pediatric medicine
Dr. Jennifer Anderson never imagined she’d be giving her four-year-old son cannabis. “I would have said ‘you’re crazy!’”
In addition to her role as mother of three, Anderson is a physician and a clinical teacher with the department of family medicine, Max Rady College of Medicine at the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences. For her, there were just too many unanswered questions and so little support from the medical community.
But life for her son, Nicholas, meant living with both cerebral palsy and a severe form of epilepsy that caused three to four seizures an hour and medications that left him in a near catatonic state.
“Raising a child who is medically fragile is scary,” said Anderson. Nighttime was the worst since a vomiting seizure could mean choking to death. Getting a full night’s sleep was a thing of the past.
After exhausting all other options, Anderson decided it was finally time to try cannabidiol (CBD), a non-psychoactive compound found in cannabis plants. “I gave him just one drop,” she remembers. “He slept through the whole night.”
She continued the treatment and within a week, she started to notice subtle changes. But the best part was the spark coming back into his eyes. “He’d basically been a zombie.”
CBD has been a godsend for Anderson and her family, but she cautions that it’s no silver bullet. “He has good days, and he has bad days.” But instead of spending his time between home and the hospital, Nicholas can now go to school. He’s even gone skiing with his family.
CBD oil has gained public attention for its potential therapeutic benefits, but in terms of actual research, it’s early days. In Canada, CBD is legal and regulated under the Cannabis Act, which was passed in 2018. Anderson says it’s still not well understood by primary health care providers and it’s not sold in pharmacies, where a patient could receive support and information about potential drug interactions from a pharmacist.
“Having success with something so controversial, and then having nobody that will help you with it, just questions the ethics of what we do,” said Anderson.
She began educating herself, with support from researchers in Montreal and Israel as well as contact with growers willing to share their knowledge. She began slowly incorporating the use of cannabis into her own practice for patients who had not received relief from any other treatment, but soon realized she wanted to get more involved with research.
One of the local researchers she connected with is Dr. Lauren Kelly, associate professor of pharmacology and therapeutics, Max Rady College of Medicine, and the clinical trials director at the Children’s Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba (CHRIM).
“Even before legalization, there were lots of kids receiving palliative care using cannabinoids,” said Kelly, who sat on the Health Canada Scientific Advisory Board for health products containing cannabis. “But no one was studying it. No one was advising them on what products to choose or how much to use.”
To date, Kelly has been awarded more than $2 million to do research on medical cannabis and has three clinical trials with children planned and underway. “Our research program, C4T, has grown so quickly because the interest has way outpaced where we are with the science,” she said. “It’s fueled by passion from parents.”
Both Anderson and Kelly say it’s now time for doctors to catch up – and quickly. “Physicians can’t just say they don’t want to talk about it,” said Kelly. “That’s just pushing frustrated parents to the recreational and legacy market, with uncontrolled products and without oversight. So, by refusing to have an honest and informed discussion with the family in front of you, what you’re saying is that you don’t really care about the safety of their child.”
For more information on Jennifer Anderson’s medical journey with cannabis, visit www.anythingcanhappendoc.com to learn about her documentary “Anything can happen: a look at cannabis in paediatric medicine,” which follows her story as a physician with her son and three of her patients.