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Medical cannabis research filling gaps

It is not unusual for people living with osteoarthritis to experience pain so severe it makes daily tasks almost impossible. In a recent survey of 600 patients scheduled to undergo knee or hip replacement surgery, about 20 per cent said they had turned to cannabis products to help them manage their pain.

Despite the relatively recent legalization of recreational cannabis, and the fact that medical cannabis has been legal for almost two decades, clinical evidence about its effectiveness at alleviating the symptoms of osteoarthritis is scarce.

Photography of Dr ClarkeWith $1.5 million in funding from the Arthritis Society and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Dr. Hance Clarke and his colleagues at Toronto’s University Health Network are now working to fill in the gaps. 

His team’s five-year research project is looking at patients using medical cannabis who are scheduled to have knee surgery, as well as detailed studies in animals, to explore how and why cannabis might be useful for their pain. Specifically, Dr. Clarke’s team is studying whether cannabinoids, the chemicals found in cannabis, are actually reaching joint cartilage, bone tissue and spinal fluid, the tissues associated with osteoarthritis. 

Among the important questions Dr. Clarke’s team is hoping to explore are: What are the major cannabinoids that are affecting these tissues? Do any anti-inflammatory effects of cannabis stem from the patient’s central nervous system or is it a joint-specific response, or both? Is there any evidence of an alteration of cytokine levels?

Since cytokines regulate the immune response – by either increasing or decreasing inflammation – understanding their role in arthritis and how cannabinoids affect them has implications for the whole spectrum of people living with osteoarthritis, whether they experience mild or severe symptoms, says Dr. Clarke. 

“With scientific rigor, we’ll hopefully get some answers,” he says. “Our findings can inform treatment options going forward.” 

“Dr. Clarke’s research, one of the largest studies the Arthritis Society has ever funded, is made possible because of our generous community,” says Trish Barbato, President and CEO. “This is just one of many essential research projects shaping the future of this devastating disease. Our supporters are truly leading the way to better treatments and health outcomes for all Canadians with arthritis.” 

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