GW Pharma, the leading developer of cannabis-derived medicines in the UK, has patented dozens of individual cannabis extracts used to combat a range of medical conditions, reigniting criticism that the biopharmaceutical giant has monopolised the UK's developing legal cannabis market.
The Cambridge-based company manufactures Sativex, a licensed medicine for MS in the UK, and Epidiolex, which is beginning to be prescribed as an unlicensed medicine to epileptic patients. It is also looking to provide cannabis-based medicines for a host of other illnesses.
Patents are granted in the UK to protect inventions, giving the patent-holder the right to take legal action against anyone who replicates their creation. Although "essentially biological" processes like plant varieties cannot be patented, the process used to make a particular medicine can be owned under intellectual property laws, potentially preventing competitors from marketing similar products.
GW Pharma is estimated to have taken out at least 42 patents already, while it is understood by sources familiar with the company's workings that it has applied for multiple more (GW Pharma would not share numbers with VICE). These include patenting the use of phytocannabinoids in the treatment of cancer, cannabinoid-containing plant extracts as neuroprotective agents, and cannabis as an inhibitor against the migration of tumour cells.
Healthcare professionals told VICE they were "surprised" cannabis products could be patented, and that they believed GW Pharma was attempting to entrench its monopoly position within the UK's medical cannabis market.
"I am surprised that patenting natural products is allowed," said professor Mike Barnes, the founder of the Medical Cannabis Clinicians Society. "GW Pharma is clearly trying to firm up their monopoly position in the pharmaceutical market. I hope this will not inhibit the supply of the natural plant that helps so many people."
Others, however, were mindful of the significant contribution GW has made in advancing knowledge of cannabis medicines, with some saying that patents are essential when researching and developing new drugs.
"Patenting promotes the development of effective cannabinoid medicines, allowing organisations to invest enormous amounts of money to produce medicines that can fit in with conventional regulations," said Peter Reynolds, president of Clear, a group that campaigns for cannabis law reform. "I don't think people quite understand how incredibly narrow patents are; they will be for a specific extract of cannabis for a specific condition under specific circumstances."
Greg de Hoedt, founder of the UK cannabis social clubs – which campaigns for the right to grow – agreed that it is logical to patent your inventions as your own intellectual property, but claimed that others had not been given the same opportunity, since research on medical cannabis could not be undertaken without a special Home Office license until recently.
"If you're running a business researching and discovering things, then patenting your work is sensible. The real problem in this field is that no one else has been given the same opportunity to do so," he said. "GW have a 20-year head-start in a very complex industry. Meanwhile, people are dying and being criminalised for trying to treat their conditions with the same plant in a way that has been proven to be effective in published papers. It's a very unjust disparity."
He added that regular people are designing their own cannabinoid preparations and treating collectives of patients at fair trade prices, acts that could potentially infringe on GW's patents. Epidiolex costs around £25,000 a year and does not contain THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis that some patients say is crucial to the treatment of their condition, with many arguing that full plant medicines are more effective.
Other campaigners claimed that medicating with pharmaceutical cannabis-medicines is unpopular. "The number of patents GW has accumulated since it was formed is testament to the therapeutic benefits of cannabis, but their current monopoly on cannabis-based medicinal products in the UK is about to end," said Jon Liebling, political director at the United Patients Alliance. "Based on feedback from patients, full plant medicines appear to be more effective than the single or combination cannabinoid medicines that they are researching, and with the schedule change on he 1st of November they may struggle to keep up with their new competition."
GW has previously been criticised for its links to government. Its chairman, Geoffrey Guy, recently donated to a Tory deregulation initiative; the prime minister's husband, Philip May, is a relationship manager at Capital Group, an investment firm that part-owns GW; and the drugs minister Victoria Atkins is married to Paul Kenward, the managing director of British Sugar, which has leased its land to grow the cannabis.
In a statement, GW Pharmaceuticals said: "Patents play an important role in incentivising research and innovation in medical science. Our patents are a result of 20 years of cutting-edge research into cannabinoid science and the development of regulatory approved medicines, which have already helped thousands of seriously ill patients in the UK and beyond. These patents are specific to the therapeutic areas in which we have made breakthrough, world first innovations, and we believe they are valid and defensible. Our patents do not pose an obstacle to additional R&D in an area of medical science which is still in the early stages of exploration and has huge potential to help patients. We would welcome other companies and organisations joining us in carrying out rigorous, clinical research to unlock the medical potential of the cannabis plant, backed by evidence to demonstrate safety and efficacy."