Synthetic cannabis pill may help fight sleep apnea, research shows

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Now a much needed new treatment could be as easy as popping a pill for those suffering from sleep apnea. (WLS)

More than 12 million Americans suffer with sleep apnea, a potentially serious sleep disorder that causes your breathing to start and stop during rest and can lead to heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

Now a much needed new treatment could be as easy as popping a pill.

Getting a good night's sleep hasn't been easy for Lisa Smith. Each night is the same.

"Wide awake, tossing and turning," she said.

She was diagnosed with sleep apnea last year after her daughter overheard her trying to sleep.

"She says you sound like somebody is in that room starting motorcycles in your room. She said you snore real loud and sometimes you're not coming back," Smith said.

Doctors prescribed a c-pap machine to help her restless nights.

"The CPAP, although it helps me sleep, I get these marks and I've got to wait all day and try to pump my face back up, because I got them marks all over my face," she said.

But now, researchers are studying a new pill that could change that.

"This would be the first of its kind for sleep apnea," said Roneil Malkani, MD, Neurology, Sleep Medicine, Northwestern Medicine.

Known as dronabinol, if approved, the synthetic form of cannabis would be taken once at nighttime, Dr. Malkani said.

"It is a medication that we think acts on nerve cells in the brain that activate the muscles in the upper airway," Dr. Malkani said.

Helping keep them open for more restful sleep - just what Smith longs for.

"If it will put me to sleep, I will do it!" she said.

The drug has been used to help cancer patients gain weight and control nausea. The dosage for sleep apnea though is much smaller and researchers are hopeful the only side effect patients will experience is a good night's sleep.

BACKGROUND: Sleep apnea is a condition where a patient's breathing temporarily ceases for a period or several periods of time throughout sleep. Apnea is defined as breathing that ceases for 10 seconds or more, or taking less than 10 percent of a normal breath that lasts 10 seconds or more. There are three types of sleep apnea: central apnea, obstructive apnea and a combination of the two. Central apnea occurs from the brain failure to activate the breathing muscles during sleep. Obstructive apnea is the most common of the types, caused by a blockage of the airways. Obstructive sleep apnea is diagnosed and treated using the patient's medical history, physical examination and sleep study, called polysomnography. Patients with sleep apnea typically exhibit symptoms of daytime fatigue, insomnia, poor concentration, headaches and irritability. (Source:

TREATMENTS: There are several treatment options for patients with sleep apnea. Without treatment, patients risk developing high blood pressure, atrial fibrillation (AFib), heart attacks or other severe heart conditions. Treatment may include:
-Positive airway pressure devices - These devices are fitted with a special breathing mask that the patient wears to sleep. The device delivers pressurized air that flows into the patient's throat, preventing the airway from collapsing.
-Oral appliances - An oral appliance is worn in the mouth and holds the lower jaw forward to allow the airway to stay open. These appliances are also used to treat snoring.
-Surgery - Some patients may opt for a surgical approach that will permanently allow their airway to remain open. Nasal surgery, palate surgery or tongue reduction surgery may help patients breathe better in their sleep, while patients whose weight is a major issue in their sleep apnea, may opt for bariatric surgery.

NEW TECHNOLOGY: Roneil Malkani, MD, of Northwestern Medicine has been researching the effects of a new drug in treating patients with sleep apnea. The drug, dronabinol, is a compound that contains tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) commonly found in the marijuana plant. Dronabinol was approved by the FDA in May 1985 and does not contain any of the other compounds typically found in the form of marijuana sold on the streets. The drug has been found to help in the treatment of loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting and weight loss. Most commonly, the drug was prescribed for AIDs patients, but now researchers are studying its effects on sleep apnea. A proof of concept study, published in January 2013 in the scientific journal Front Psychiatry, found that 17 obstructive sleep apnea patients tolerated the drug well and had a significant reduction in apnea over a 21-day period. In the study, no adverse effects were noted. (Source:,

Sheila Galloro
Specialist, Media Relations

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