Is Medical Marijuana the Solution for ALS?

September 09, 2014 | Jahan Marcu, PhD

The ice bucket challenge has raised a huge amount of awareness for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) — popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. With the help of celebrities, politicians and thousands of participants from across the country, the ALS Association raised $94.3 million dollars for research. However, as awareness burgeons, many remain unaware of the significant benefits that medical marijuana has in treating ALS.

The endocannabinoid system helps us to “Eat, sleep, relax, forget, and protect.” This article is about how the endocannabinoid system can be stimulated to “protect” motor-neurons, the nerves (brain-type cells) that control body movement (Abood 2001).

Lou Gehrig’s disease (or ALS, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) is a fatal disease that affects degrades the neurons in the body that control movement. The hallmarks of ALS is a rapid progression of weakness and paralysis, death occurs within 3-5 years in most cases, and brain function remains intact (Rowland 2001) . The exact causes or pathogenesis of ALS is poorly understood, and while the pharmaceutical industry has made treatment options available, none of these treatments prevent disease progression and death.

The human clinical studies on THC-only Cannabis are limited by sample size. Research regulations for clinical use of THC also make it difficult to recruit ALS patients in a timely manner for a controlled study. Despite these significant obstacles, two human studies have been conducted. One of the studies, was a pilot study investigating the safety and tolerability of THC in ALS patients (Gelinas/ABood 2002). This clinical study confirmed symptomatic benefits for appetite, insomnia, and spasticity. The seconds research study was conducted as an anonymous survey in 80 countries, 131 surveys were completed, and the mean age 54. Participants reported that Cannabis helped provide relief from drooling, speech and swallowing difficulty, appetite loss, weakness, shortness of breath, spasticity, depression, and pain (Amtmann D 2004). In animals with ALS, THC administered either before or after the onset of the disease delayed motor impairment and prolonged survival. Furthermore, THC potently reduced oxidative and excite-toxic damage in spinal cord cultures in vitro (Raman et al. 2004). The protective effects of cannabinoids and their anti-spastic effects in MS are well known (Carter 2001). Furthermore, cannabinoid receptors are up-regulated in human tissue during disease progression, making them an abundant target for treatment.

The benefits of Cannabis to treat ALS is prevalent in anecdotal evidence, but basic laboratory and animal research suggests that THC may be the first (and only?) naturally occurring, non-toxic, anti-oxidant to slow the progressions of the disease significantly. In addition to delaying the progression of disease and increasing life-span cannabinoids treatments may offer other benefits include sleep induction, appetite stimulation, saliva reduction, bronchodilation, analgesia, and muscle relaxation (Carter).

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Abood ME, Rizvi G, Sallapudi N, McAllister SD. 2001. Activation of the CB1 cannabinoid receptor protects cultured mouse spinal neurons against excitotoxicity. Neurosci Lett 309:197-201.

Amtmann D, Weydt P, Johnson KL, Jensen MP, Carter GT. 2004. Survey of cannabis use in patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Am J Hosp Palliat Care 21:95-104.

Carter GT, Rosen BS. 2001. Marijuana in the management of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Am J Hosp Palliat Care 18:264-70.

Gelinas DM, R; Abood, M. 2002. A pilot study of safety and tolerability of Delta 9-THC (Marinol) treatment for ALS. Amyotrophic lateral Sclerosis and Motor neuron Disorders 3.

Raman C, McAllister SD, Rizvi G, Patel SG, Moore DH, Abood ME. 2004. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis: delayed disease progression in mice by treatment with a cannabinoid. Amyotroph Lateral Scler Other Motor Neuron Disord 5:33-9.

Rowland LP, Shneider NA. 2001. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. N Engl J Med 344:1688-700.

Medical Cannabis Helps ALS Patient Outlive her Own Doctors

Medical Cannabis Helps ALS Patient Outlive her Own Doctors

In April, Cathy Jordan sat on a panel at the Cannabis Therapeutics Conference in Arizona. Before taking the stage, she discussed the medical use of cannabis for ALS with Jahan Marcu, the Philadelphia Medical Marijuana Examiner.

Cathy Jordan first noticed something was wrong in summer of 1985 when she couldn’t pick things up. Her muscles weren’t responding. In 1986, she was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis).  ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is characterized by the death of motor neurons leading to loss of limb control, breathing, swallowing, speech and widespread cellular dysfunction. Most cases of ALS are sporadic; it is not a viral or autoimmune disease.

“Most people start using a feeding tube because they are afraid of choking to death”, says Cathy.

In 1986, she was given 3 – 5 years to live according to her neurologist. Nearly 3 decades later, she is still alive and living with ALS.

“All my docs are retiring or dead. I’ve outlived 5 support groups and 4 neurologists,” said Cathy. This actually posed a problem for Cathy who lost her social security benefits because she lived passed her expiration date. The state of Florida said her ID and regular documentation wasn’t good enough to prove she was alive and to continue to receive benefits. She had to ask her neurologist to fill out paperwork to prove she was still alive.

Mrs. Jordan began using Cannabis from a Florida grower to treat her ALS in the late 80’s. “Donny Clark provided my medicine, grown in the Myakka River Valley…he was busted and sentenced to life in prison, and that strain of Cannabis was lost.”

“You know, they say the fountain of youth is in Florida. Maybe it was something in the soil that made this plant helps me…and I don’t understand why doctors wouldn’t study me. But I still would like to know why this is helping me.”

At first, doctors wouldn’t accept that marijuana could be responsible for Cathy’s extended life span. Other doctors thought that smoking anything would impair her lung function and even threatened to have this paralyzed women committed, simply based on the fact that she thought Cannabis was actually helping her.

“I visited a neurologist at Duke University. When I told him that I was smoking Cannabis, he didn’t know what to do with me. He was afraid. He wouldn’t even take my blood pressure because I was using an illegal drug.”

Cathy adds:

“I asked my docs if they would take a drug if it was neuroprotective, an antioxidant and an anti-inflammatory. They say ‘yes’ and ask me if I know of one. Cannabis, I tell them.”

Nearly three decades later, the science has caught up with this miracle patient. Scientists created a mouse with ALS, which was very exciting for Cathy. Research has shown that THC and other cannabinoids can benefit mice with ALS. The mounting evidence of cannabinoids halting the progression of ALS has started to change the attitudes of doctors and prominent researchers have recently called for ALS clinical trials with Cannabis or cannabinoids.

“They all agree today that I should smoke Cannabis,” says Cathy. “Twenty six years later, my original neurologist fought [successfully] to make sure Cannabis is legal for patients in Delaware.”

Researchers think Cannabis may help ALS patients relieving pain, spasticity, drooling, appetite loss and has minimal drug-drug interactions and toxicity.

“There are ALS patients associations that fight for the right of patients to die with dignity. But what about my right to life?” asks Cathy. “Keeping my medicine illegal removes my right to life.”

Video: Tucson AZ – The Use of Cannabis for ALS – Jahan Marcu & Cathy Jordan