Cannabis-like drug 1st pill to successfully treat sleep apnea

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The largest, longest trial to date testing an oral drug for obstructive sleep apnea yielded positive results, according to research out of Chicago. Dronabinol—a synthetic THC substitute—proved helpful in reducing apnea and decreasing sleepiness in 73 adult patients.

The study, published in the journal Sleep, was born from a necessity to develop more useable treatments for sleep apnea, which affects 30 million Americans and can significantly raise a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cognitive impairment and fatigue if untreated. The run-of-the-mill treatment is a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machine, which is highly effective and delivers air directly to a patient via a bedside device while they sleep.

Still, no ingestible drug is available to remedy the effects of the illness, and most patients refrain from using CPAP devices all night—if at all—due to their disruptive design and the fact that treatment doesn’t last through the morning.

“The best they can get is a roughly 50 percent improvement in their apnea,” co-lead author David W. Carley, PhD, said in a release from Northwestern University, which partnered with the University of Illinois at Chicago for the study. “When people take a pill to treat apnea, they are treated for the entire night.”

People who do choose to use the machine rarely stick with it for more than four hours a night, he said.

In Carley and colleagues’ study, 73 patients with severe sleep apnea were divided into three groups. One group was randomized to a low dose of dronabinol, the second was assigned a higher dose and the third took a placebo pill. For six weeks, participants took the pill before bed.

The researchers found that after a month and a half, patients who’d ingested the higher dose of dronabinol—10 milligrams—reported a lower frequency of apneas and hypopneas, decreased subjective sleepiness and greater overall treatment satisfaction than the placebo group.

These results could stem from a different approach to apnea treatment, Carley and co-authors wrote—instead of just targeting physical symptoms of the condition, the scientists treated patients with a drug that also focused on the brain.

“By providing a path toward the first viable obstructive sleep apnea drug, our studies could have a major impact on clinical practice,” Carley said.