It took Dr. Brad Ingram four years, consent from three federal agencies, a U.S. Senate hearing and a Mississippi law to get permission to study whether an ingredient in marijuana could reduce the seizures of severely epileptic children.
A year into the treatment of 10 children at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, it’s clear that cannabidiol, known as CBD, has greatly helped. Two more studies are planned — one to enlarge the original group of children and the other as a test of CBD’s effects on healthy adult volunteers.
“In every case, we have had some positive outcomes,” Ingram, a pediatric neurologist, told the McComb Rotary Club on Wednesday.
One girl who was having 200 seizures a day is now down to one, he said, and it only occurs when she gets into a bathtub. Another 14-year-old is speaking for the first time, and two epileptic children who could not walk are now able to do so.
“These two are teenagers,” Ingram noted. “They would have been walking a long time ago.”
Ingram has a personal connection to his patients: He was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 16, and 90 percent of his work involves children who have the condition.
He said he’s passionate about the possibilities offered by “epilepsy surgery” on the brain, which either removes a damaged section of the brain or “disconnects it” from the rest of the brain.
“It is a bizarre thing to do, but it is making a difference,” he said.
In the last six years, there have been 68 pediatric epilepsy surgeries at UMMC, and Ingram said 66 of the patients no longer have seizures. The other two have fewer seizures and now require much less medication.
Research on CBD to treat many disorders began in the 1960s, but Ingram said anti-drug programs of the 1980s killed the work. It’s the main reason he had such a difficult time getting his 10-child study approved.
“A lot of the freeze in my research lives on from Nancy Reagan,” he remarked, referring to the former first lady’s “Just Say No” message against drug use. It helped create an unusual situation that allowed research into a more powerful drug like heroin while forbidding it for anything derived from marijuana.
This led to families of epileptic children searching out alternative treatments for their children and sharing the information online.
Ingram said one mother whose child’s condition was not improving in Colorado was among the first to report that CBD made a difference. She gave her child the drug a few years ago after watching Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s marijuana documentaries on CNN.
“She, more than anyone else, is the one who said, ‘CBD is where it’s at,’ ” Ingram added.
He said CBD, and perhaps other marijuana ingredients, have great potential to treat conditions like epilepsy, migraine headaches and psychiatric conditions. But it may take years of research before prescription medication will be available to the public.
“Toothpaste is more regulated than CBD,” he noted, and there is no research into how the drug interacts with other medications.
“In the middle are those families who have tried other medicines, and their kids are still seizing 20 or 30 times a day, and they have nothing else to try,” he said.
Meanwhile, the legalization of marijuana in a few states and widespread sale of CBD-related products are in their “Wild West” phase, where there is little quality control, and a lot of the CBD or vaping products do not contain the ingredients buyers are seeking.
He said the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics recently audited 22 CBD products sold legally in the state. All of them were made of oregano and olive oil, and none had CBD in them. Some vaping products, he added, have been found to contain the drug fentanyl — but not CBD.