VITAL EVIDENCE

Marijuana Aids Therapy

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Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Marijuana can improve the effectiveness of drug therapy for hepatitis C, a potentially deadly viral infection that affects more than 3 million Americans, a study has found. The work adds to a growing literature supporting the notion that in some circumstances pot can offer medical benefits.

Treatment for hepatitis C involves months of therapy with two powerful drugs, interferon and ribavirin, that have severe side effects, including extreme fatigue, nausea, muscle aches, loss of appetite and depression. Because of those side effects, many patients do not finish treatment and the virus ends up destroying their livers.

Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco and at an Oakland substance abuse center tracked the progress of 71 hepatitis C patients taking the difficult therapy. Tests and interviews indicated that 22 smoked marijuana every day or two during the treatment period while 49 rarely or never did.

At the end of the six-month treatment, 19 (86 percent) of those who used marijuana had successfully completed the therapy -- meaning they took at least 80 percent of their doses over at least 80 percent of the period. Only 29 (59 percent) of the nonsmokers achieved that goal.

Similarly, 54 percent of the marijuana users achieved a "sustained virological response," the gold standard goal of therapy, meaning they had no sign of the virus in their bodies six months after the treatment was over. That compared with only 18 percent of those who did not smoke pot.

While it is possible that the marijuana had a specific, positive biomedical effect, it is more likely that it helped patients by reducing depression, improving appetite and offering psychological benefits that helped the patients tolerate the treatment's side effects, the team reports in the current issue of the European Journal of Gastroenterology & Hepatology.

-- Rick Weiss


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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