A UK pharmaceutical company producing prescription cannabinoid medicines, has announced its expansion into oncology with the development of a potential ‘first in class’ cancer treatment.
Oxford Cannabinoid Technologies Plc (OCTP), which has been developing cannabinoid-based medicines since 2017, announced this week it is expanding its research and development to focus on a new drug with the potential to treat cancer.
The company has identified a potential ‘first in class’ immunotherapy agent which could be taken as a tablet to treat solid tumours as an alternative to existing therapies.
The new drug candidate was identified from OCTP’s library of almost 500 cannabinoid derivatives after it signed an exclusive licence agreement with Canopy Growth Corporation.
During an investor update on Wednesday 19 July, OCTP’s chief scientific officer, Dr Valentino Parravicini, explained how following analysis of the initial data, the team believes the molecule demonstrates ‘significant potential’ in both in vitro [test tubes] and in vivo [living organism] studies.
Immunotherapy treatment in cancer
Immunotherapy is a form of treatment which uses the body’s immune system to fight cancer. Existing types of immunotherapy include monoclonal antibodies, checkpoint inhibitors, and vaccines, as well as targeted treatments or biological therapies.
They all work in different ways in order to help the immune system recognise and attack cancer cells and then prevent or delay cancer reappearance.
Immunotherapy is not always suitable for patients and is currently only licensed to treat certain advanced cancers. As with many forms of cancer treatment it may also come with side effects, including fatigue and inflammatory and autoimmune complications, which can affect any part of the body.
Dr Parravicini explained how the new compound works on a mechanism of action which removes the ‘hand brake’ which the cancer sets on the patient’s immunity, triggering the patient’s own immune cells to attack the cancer again.
“Observations show that tumour growth is in some cases associated with increased levels of endocannabinoids, both at the tumour level and in the blood,” he said.
“In this case, some of these endocannabinoids actually have a detrimental effect in immunotherapy against the tumour. The tumour should be killed by the immune system, but it finds a way to bypass it. In that case, what we say is that the tumour microenvironment is ‘cold’ meaning that the tumour is not detected by the immune system. The immunosuppressive cells actually block the immune system, or put a handbrake on it, if you like, and the tumour grows and forms metastasis. “
He continued: “Our idea is to change that using our derivative to actually release this handbrake. We increase the inflammation so that the tumour microenvironment becomes hot, and the patient’s own cytotoxic cells can actively kill it.”
A cheaper and more accessible treatment option?
Current treatments achieve this mechanism of action through antibodies or cell therapies, but these can be expensive and hard to access, usually requiring travel to specialist cancer centres.
OCTP believes the new drug could be taken at home as a tablet, potentially making it cheaper for both public and private healthcare providers and more convenient for patients.
Attention will now focus on further in vitro and in vivo studies, followed by a safety-pharmacology assessment with the final candidate selection likely to take place in 2024.
Clarissa Sowemimo-Coker, chief executive officer, commented: “There is an urgent need for new cancer medications. The OCTP team has discovered a potential first-line-treatment alternative to existing therapies and their side effects which could provide a viable alternative to expensive biologics. Although we’re at an early stage, this is exciting news for the company.
“As the potential of cannabinoid-based medicines to treat a range of conditions in a less harmful and more economic manner receives growing public recognition, OCTP stands at the forefront of research and development and we are extremely excited to have identified a possible candidate that could have a significant impact on many peoples’ lives.
Sowemimo-Coker added: “We are innovative specialists within the global pain and oncology markets and we will continue to develop new opportunities that will ultimately benefit people suffering with a range of debilitating, life altering conditions.”
Meeting unmet needs in neuropathic pain
OCTP is already making significant progress with the development of new cannabinoid-based drugs to treat chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN) and trigeminal neuralgia (TN).
The company has received MHRA approval for the first in-human Phase 1 double-blind randomised control trial on its patented cannabinoid-based molecule, OCT461201 to treat CIPN, with the first dose expected to be administered in participants imminently.
It has also completed safety and toxicology studies and on a metered-dose inhaler to administer a combination of synthetic cannabinoids, dronabinol (THC) and CBD in patients with TN.
TN is a hard-to-treat pain condition which causes bursts of sharp, excruciating nerve pain usually to one side of the face.
“This is another area of very significant unmet medical need,” said OCTP’s chief medical officer, Dr Tim Corn.
“There is only one drug approved for the treatment of trigeminal neuralgia but it’s an anticonvulsant and it has a life threatening side-effect.”
He continued: “This is a very severe pain. It can be acute, it can become chronic, and it can become recurrent. A wide range of other drugs are used, including gabapentinoids antidepressants, Botox and even sometimes surgery to relieve this condition. The prospect of a treatment that can be delivered very quickly with an inhaler in the acute situation, and chronically for patients who have the condition, is really very exciting.”
Several clinical trials have shown the efficacy of combined THC/CBD therapy in neuropathic pain. The inhaler device is designed to deliver a consistent metered dose with better absorption and bioavailability for faster onset of pain relief.
OCTP is now beginning the process of applying for regulatory approval to conduct Phase 1 trials in Australia.
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