Founded in 1998, GW Pharmaceuticals is a true pioneer in cannabinoid medicines and the only pharmaceutical company with a license to cultivate cannabis in the UK.
“While people were wary of cannabis, they became very aware that it was treating patients with severe conditions, where other medicines had either failed or had introduced serious side effects and developmental issues, particularly in children.”
Dr. Geoffrey Guy
Founder and chairman at GW Pharmaceuticals
Cannabis is starting to receive recognition as a major player in pharma, the facts cannot be ignored. Cannabinoids are simply too valuable to disregard when it comes to healthcare and life sciences.
In April 2013, GW launched Sativex, a peppermint flavoured mouth spray for the treatment of spasticity due to multiple sclerosis and the world’s first prescription medicine derived cannabis. Although approved in the UK and the EU, Sativex was priced extremely high and has been notoriously difficult for patients to get their hands on.
This June, GW celebrated a more solid success with the US FDA approval of their lead product, Epidiolex. The twice-daily, strawberry flavoured solution is for the treatment of two rare and severe forms of epilepsy, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS) and Dravet syndrome, for patients from the age of two. This marks the first cannabidiol approval in the world’s largest pharmaceutical market.
More than 50 children in the UK have already been treated with Epidiolex free of charge out of 1,500 worldwide. This was likely down to the release of the UK home secretary’s review into medicinal uses of cannabis following public pressure from two families with very sick children who could benefit from the drug. It should be available to GP’s to prescribe in Britain and the rest of Europe by mid-2019 providing the European Medicines Agency (EMA) approves it early next year.
When asked about the most momentous landmarks in GW’s history, Dr Geoffrey Guy, the company’s visionary founder and chairman since 1998 said, “the first really significant moment for GW Pharmaceuticals was the granting of the license to grow cannabis in 1998. The second important moment was the approval of Sativex in the UK and Europe. Third, was the initiation of the Epidiolex program which brought together much of the work that we had done on the beneficial properties of Cannabidiol (CBD).”
GW initially started cultivating and growing at secret farms in Southern England and since 2016 at multiple glasshouses in Norfolk. The cannabis is then moved to a secret location in the UK where CBD is extracted and purified and made into prescription drugs.
Always keen to distance itself from the more controversial realm of ‘medical marijuana’, GW has continuously branded itself as a regular pharmaceutical company which happens to use compounds from the cannabis plant. Guy feels that the UK has been more accepting of the concept than some of its peers; he points out that “Stigma was not a major issue in the UK. However, it is dependent on culture; there is significantly more stigma in Canada, the US and France whilst Spain is incredibly tolerant.”
Though investors were initially sceptical of the concept, Guy notes that “When we put the company on NASDAQ five years ago, there was massive enthusiasm for what GW Pharmaceuticals was doing. While people were wary of cannabis, they became very aware that it was treating patients with severe conditions, where other medicines had either failed or had introduced serious side effects and developmental issues, particularly in children.”
In terms of GW’s future areas of research and development, Guy posits that “We intend to follow those signals that are indicative of cannabinoid benefit regarding homoeostasis, compensation and decompensation. We will probably focus on children for a long time; there will then make a leap towards much older people. Cannabinoids are especially orientated towards neural development. Cannabinoids create, guide, join and maintain neural development in the fetus. In the adult brain, they further enhance plasticity and connectivity. They repair, replace and regenerate, particularly in neural tissue but also in cardiac tissue as well.”