Researchers studying usage, safety of cannabis oil for children with epilepsy

The lead researchers of a cannabidiol study joined CBC Radio's Afternoon Edition to discuss the study and what they know so far, regarding usage and safety.

Some children in study can have up to 100 seizures a day

The study will be using the 1:20 CanniMed oil. (Submitted by CanniMed Ltd.)

Researchers in Saskatchewan and Alberta are looking into the usage and safety of cannabidiol (CBD) — a marijuana extract with very low levels of psychoactive compounds —  for children with epilepsy. 

The lead researchers of a pilot study are Dr. Richard Huntsman, a pediatric neurologist at the University of Saskatchewan, and Dr. Richard Tang-Wai, a pediatric epileptologist at the University of Alberta. Cannabidiol is the main area of their research.

Tang-Wai said the study came about after a huge demand from parents of children with severe epilepsy.

Tang-Wai said the parents were looking for anything which could help their children. Some of them noted reports from various news outlets depicting the use of CBD as some sort of miracle drug. 

Dr. Richard Huntsman said children involved with the study could have up to 100 seizures in some cases. (CBC Saskatoon)

Tang-Wai said parents told him parents would seek out CBD themselves.

"It's hard to stop parents from doing that sometimes because they are desperate," Tang-Wai said, adding it can't be determined just what else is in those products.

Safety is needed when dealing with the administration of medication and children, which is what the study hopes to shed more light on, both men said. 

"The product that we're using is a high cannabidiol, low THC product," Huntsman said.

Huntsman said past studies have shown CBD to have some benefits when it comes to treating epilepsy but said the study is only just scratching the surface.

Tang-Wai emphasized it is not the same as recreational marijuana use, in which THC features prominently, so there aren't as much psychoactive effects when treating children.

The children in the study have varying degrees of severity when it comes to epileptic seizures. Huntsman said some children can have up to 100 seizures a day, in the worst cases. The children in the study often are not candidates for surgery either, due to medication or diet. 

"These kids also, as part of epilepsy syndromes, often regress developmentally," Huntsman said. "So that really adds to the urgency that we need to get a good feel, a good handle of what's happening with cannabis." 

The study is a multi-centre study at both universities, as well as partner sites at University of British Columbia, Université de Montréal and McGill University, Huntsman said. 

Thirty children will go in on a monthly basis, and each month their dosage of CBDs will be escalated. Over the time, children will be monitored and will continue other medication they're using during the study. 

"We have to keep things steady as possible," Huntsman said.

With files from CBC Radio's The Afternoon Edition