The Cyclists Crowdfunding a Medical Cannabis Trial

The Medical Cannabis Bike Tour is raising funds for a trial in humans looking at whether cannabinoids can help treat brain cancer.

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Jun 13 2015, 7:00pm

Image: Medical Cannabis Bike Tour

This weekend, a group of volunteers are wrapping up a 420 km bike ride with a very specific goal in mind: making money for a clinical trial of cannabis as a potential treatment to fight brain cancer

The Medical Cannabis Bike Tour in Europe is raising funds to support research led by Dr Guillermo Velasco at the Complutense University of Madrid, who has been studying the effects of cannabinoids on gliomas, a type of brain tumour. He's actually looking at how cannabinoids could fight the cancer itself, rather than just alleviate symptoms. Having found evidence in earlier work that cannabinoids (the main active ingredients in marijuana, THC, and CBD) could help kill off these tumour cells, he's keen to proceed with a clinical trial.

"We thought to design a protocol for treating patients with glioma with a combination of cannabinoids and temozolomide," explained Velasco in a phone call. Temozolomide is a chemotherapy drug usually used to treat glioma. The planned clinical trial would be run by neurooncological research group GEINO (a Spanish health authority) and would be a first line therapy; that is, patients would receive the current standard therapy plus the cannabinoid treatment.

An image from last year's bike tour. Image: Medical Cannabis Bike Tour

"For this first study, the idea would be mainly to test the potential toxicity on patients," Velasco said, noting that the first priority was to assess safety before they could look further into other factors such as any impact on life expectancy.

But to do the trial, the scientists need funding, and Velasco said the Bike Tour approached them. "They wanted to do a study that was independent of pharmaceutical companies," he said in explanation of the unconventional funding route. Other researchers working with drugs better known for their recreational qualities have met with similar difficulties in finding funding and several have also recently turned to crowdsourced donations.

Tim, a British volunteer with the Bike Tour who asked not to use his last name, said the group had so far raised around 200,000 euros through sponsorship and needed about 85,000 more. "When the tour started, it was just for medical cannabis, funding their work," he told me over mobile while on his way to help a participant with a broken bike. "Clinical trials just seemed to be something that was impossible."

The Medical Cannabis Bike Tour started a crowdfunding campaign to help raise the final amount on Walacea, the same site that hosted a successful campaign to raise money for a UK clinical trial involving LSD earlier this year.

"Nobody else was doing anything," said Tim. "It took people in the cannabis community who started the bike ride, and they kind of took the initiative."

He added that, "After two years, people aren't laughing any more."

Tim said that he first got involved with the Bike Tour when he reached out as part of an academic anthropology study, and they invited him to join in. It started out as an adventure. "Then I found out about the science and the cannabis, and it kind of went from there," he said. "I lost both my parents to cancer and traditional treatments didn't help them, so I was interested to see if there was any truth really in the fact that cannabinoids can treat cancer, because it could help a lot of people potentially."

The idea that cannabinoids could potentially help treat cancer is by no means a new one, but it remains controversial. While medical marijuana is available to cancer patients in some US states and countries like the Netherlands (usually for pain or to help with side-effects of chemotherapy rather than in an effort to actually kill cancer cells), there's little real scientific evidence as to how cannabinoids could work on different cancers as a treatment. Research has largely been preclinical, and it'll take human trials to convincingly move beyond anecdotal reports.

"If we want to use cannabinoids as medicine, then we need to treat them as medicine too."

One study published in 2006 tested cannabinoids in nine patients with glioma tumours, delivered straight to the brain through a tube. The results of the study suggest this was a safe method of delivery, but given the small number of people involved and the lack of control group, it's impossible to draw conclusions about any health benefits the drug could have had. All patients died within a year, which Cancer Research explains would be expected with the cancer at this stage. Glioma tumours can cause symptoms including headaches and seizures, and usually requires surgery and radiation. A few other trials testing cannabinoids' effects on cancer are being set up, Velasco's among them.

Velasco explained that for this particular type of tumour it's important to look for new treatments because it's very aggressive. If the trials suggest cannabinoids could help, this could also open the door to looking at other cancers. The planned trial, which is set to start in September with 30-40 patients, will administer the drug in an oral capsule.

The Bike Tour comes to an end on Saturday in Amsterdam, in time for "Cannabis Liberation Day" (which, judging by its site, is not limited to celebrating the purely medical uses of cannabis).

Valesco acknowledged that the crossover between support for medical cannabis research and recreational use could be both a blessing and a curse—it makes the kind of research he's doing more popular among some crowds, but more controversial among others. In his opinion, the debates over medical and recreational use should be completely separate.

"If we want to use cannabinoids as medicine, then we need to treat them as medicine too, following all the clinical studies—following all the procedures that all medicines are following," he said. "If we mix one thing with the other, then people are going to consider that this is like an excuse for recreational use of marijuana."