Synthetic cannabis-like drug reduces effects of sleep apnoea

30 Nov 2017

Image: tommaso79/Shutterstock

Those not getting a proper night’s sleep due to living with sleep apnoea might be able to rest easier with a new cannabis-like drug.

Sleep apnoea is a breathing disorder that results in a person’s breathing being interrupted, which can last from a few seconds to minutes, and may occur 30 times or more in an hour.

If left untreated, sleep apnoea raises the risk of heart disease, diabetes, sleepiness, cognitive impairment and a motor vehicle accident.

Until now, the most effective treatment had been with a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device that keeps the person’s airway open. Now though, a drug that has been around for a quarter of a century might offer an alternative treatment.

In a paper set to be published to the journal Sleep, a team from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) investigated the effect of dronabinol, a synthetic version of the molecule Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) found in cannabis.

Approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) more than 25 years ago to treat nausea and vomiting in chemotherapy patients, the drug was used on 73 adult patients with moderate or severe sleep apnoea.

More than just a physical problem

Lasting for six weeks, the trial was the largest and longest randomised of its kind to test a drug treatment for sleep apnoea.

When results were analysed, treatment with the highest doses of the drug (10 milligrams) showed a 33pc lower frequency of apnoea during sleep, decreased subjective sleepiness and greater overall treatment satisfaction compared to the placebo group.

What these findings suggest is that sleep apnoea might not necessarily be simply a physiological problem, but caused by multiple factors as well.

“The CPAP device targets the physical problem but not the cause,” said the paper’s lead author, Dr Phyllis Zee.

“The drug targets the brain and nerves that regulate the upper airway muscles. It alters the neurotransmitters from the brain that communicate with the muscles. Better understanding of this will help us develop more effective and personalised treatments for sleep apnoea.”

The next step of the team’s research will be to expand the trial to greater numbers, and UIC has already licensed the experimental drug treatment with pharmaceutical company RespireRx.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic