In July 2021, proposals to liberalise the medicinal cannabis sector were put forward by UK government officials, potentially removing another barrier for a market expected to grow in the coming years. Here Aleiya Lonsdale looks at why labs will need to become more adaptable to the expected growth in the market.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from recreational use, which is still illegal in the UK, the use of legal cannabis-based products for medicinal use in humans (CBPMs) is expected to be worth £2.3bn by 2024.
The changes to import regulations are an important breakthrough for clinical practice, allowing specialist doctors to prescribe it where there is a clinical need. Potential use cases include adults with aggressive forms of multiple sclerosis (MS) and children being denied access to control epileptic seizures.
More recently, biotechnicians have been experimenting with CBPMs and CBD-derived treatments for COVID-19, to inhibit the cytokine storm initiated when the virus enters the body. It has also been used therapeutically in cancer patients, to reduce chemotherapy-induced nausea, vomiting and chronic pain.
Currently, a limited number of licensed products are available on the market, including Sativex for MS patients, Epidyolex for epilepsy patients and Nabilone for chemotherapy patients.
Despite the change in the law, prescriptions of unlicensed cannabis-based medical products have still been limited as GPs cannot prescribe them; they must be prescribed by a specialist doctor, and even then, only where clinically appropriate. This is also made difficult because the majority of prescriptions are privately funded and are not currently routinely prescribed on the NHS.
As further studies into CBPMs yield the necessary evidence to bring about clinical change, and funding models are developed, it is expected that the industry will see a boom in the market in the coming years. This raises the question, is the laboratory industry ready to adapt to the changes this will require?
Preparing for market booms
Unlike other drugs, medical cannabis refers to a wide variety of products. This includes cannabis-based medical products, but also the more widely available cannabidiol (CBD), hemp oil and other supplements — which are actually categorised as a type of novel food supplement by the UK Food Standards Agency because of their low level of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the active compound found in cannabis.
As such, it will be important that laboratories can effectively bring together the technologies, equipment, processes and expertise to effectively test cannabis-based products for safety and quality.
This might include testing for cannabinoids, such as THC, but also for solvents, pathogens, heavy metals, terpenes, pesticides and fungicides, which can be damaging to human health.
It will be vital that labs can use the right mix of equipment, including gas chromatography, mass spectrometry and high-pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC) machines to respond to industry needs.
Those looking to explore the latest technologies and processes in the laboratory industry can visit Lab Innovations, the UK’s largest annual trade exhibition dedicated to the entire laboratory industry, from November 3-4, 2021, at the NEC in Birmingham. To find out more visit the Lab Innovations website.