What do Snoop Dog, Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard, and a multinational British tobacco company have in common? This past week, all three closed the series A funding round of one biotech firm, Oxford Cannabinoid Technologies . The firm is working towards the discovery of novel cannabinoid (CBD) treatments. Their research areas consist of chronic pain, oncology, inflammatory diseases, and neurological disorders.
This partnership marks Big Tobacco’s most significant foray into the rapidly growing cannabis industry. Imperial Brands (www.imperialbrandsplc.com/) is a global tobacco company headquartered in Bristol, UK. The first indication that Imperial Brands intended to move on cannabis opportunities was the addition of Simon Langelier to Imperial Brands’ Board of Directors. Imperial Brands purported that Langelier was hired due to his previous position at Philip Morris, but his experiences as Chairman of PharmaCielo, a Canadian based medicinal cannabis firm, did not hurt either.
This is likely not Big Tobacco’s last foray into the cannabis space. It may, in fact, be the first of many. John Boehner, speaker of the House from 2011-2015, currently sits on the board of Acreage Holdings , a cannabis corporation that operates in 11 states, as well as Reynolds Cigarettes, parent company of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company, and others in the space. Although in 2011 Boehner was “unalterably opposed” to legalization, he recently took to Twitter to reverse his long-held stance, saying that “my thinking has evolved”. It is clear cannabis is becoming big business that political, tobacco, and alcohol companies can no longer afford to ignore.
The timing of this investment is intriguing because it coincides with the FDA’s approval of Epidiolex, a medication manufactured by GW Pharmaceuticals and tested in clinical trials to treat two specific forms of childhood onset epilepsy. Epidiolex was developed to treat seizures in people 2 years or older with Dravet Syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut Syndrome. These two syndromes are associated with high rates of mortality and few treatment options.
“LGS is one of the most difficult types of epilepsy to treat and the majority of patients do not have an adequate response to existing therapies,” said Elizabeth Thiele (pictured below), MD, PhD, director of pediatric epilepsy at Massachusetts General Hospital, professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School and lead author of the study publication. “These results show that Epidiolex may provide clinically meaningful benefits for patients with LGS.
The CEO of GW Pharmaceuticals since 1999, Justin Gover, remarked that the testing protocols involved in developing the cannbidiol drug, Epidiolex, did not greatly differ from the drug development processes of their existing drug pipeline. “Although there are additional complications, the research of cannabinoids under a Schedule 1 license can be done.”
Grover expects GW Pharmaceuticals will launch Epidiolex in the fall of 2018. He predicts that sales of Epidiolex could reach $1.3B annually by 2022. The only remaining step is for the DEA to evaluate Epidiolex for its medicinal properties. The DEA has 90 days to complete the process, and CEO Glover is confident that Epidiolex will pass the DEA’s investigation. In the future, GW Pharmaceuticals’ decade long research into cannabidiols for medical use may extend to treatments for opioid addiction and pain. Their pipeline of additional cannabinoid product candidates includes compounds in Phase 1 and 2 trials for gliobastoma, schizophrenia and epilepsy.