New Cannabis-Like Drug Could Help with Sleep Apnea

The first multi-site study conducted at Northwestern Medicine and the University of Illinois Chicago for a medication to treat obstructive sleep apnea was recently found to be safe and effective. The drug, a synthetic cannabis-like pill called dronabinol, underwent a phase two trial funded by the National Institutes of Health. The medication was approved over 25 years ago by the FDA for treating symptoms of nausea and vomiting for chemotherapy patients. The recent study was the longest and largest randomized, controlled trial to ever be conducted on a potential medication for sleep apnea.

“There’s a serious need for more treatment options when it comes to sleep apnea,” said Amy Norman, DDS, who treats sleep apnea patients at her practice in Everett, Washington.

“I’ve never had a patient come in and say how much they love their CPAP machine and that they use it every night,” she said. “In fact, most patients hate them and use them very sporadically.”

In a study published in the journal Sleep Review, some reasons for abandoning CPAP use included anxiety, noise, mask discomfort, inconvenience, frequent nocturnal awakenings, partner complaints and trouble falling asleep.

“If patients sleep less when complying with their treatment, there’s no benefit from their point of view to continue the treatment long-term,” Norman said. “And without treatment, sleep apnea is dangerous and can even be deadly.”

Many people think of sleep apnea as an annoying and inconvenient condition, but few realize the dangers. Waking up repeatedly throughout the night combined with low blood oxygen levels can have damaging effects on the heart and cause high blood pressure. Statistically, people with obstructive sleep apnea are at a higher risk for suffering a heart attack or stroke, Norman said.

“There is some research out there that shows that 80 percent of type 2 diabetic patients have obstructive sleep apnea and many don’t even know they have it,” she said.

This lack of sleep can wreak havoc on the body’s ability to produce insulin, which can be a serious danger to the health of a diabetic patient. 

In the past, treatment for sleep apnea has addressed the airway and the symptoms, not the cause. The new use for this drug focuses treatment on the brain instead of the airway, attempting to find a way to correct the cause. It targets the areas of the brain that control the upper airway muscles and alters the neurotransmitters that connect the brain to the muscles.

After successful trials with animals in 2002 and a smaller, successful trial on humans in 2007, this treatment is taking steps in the right direction and one day may be used to treat patients with obstructive sleep apnea with no more than a small pill.