Research

The NSW Government is committed to making NSW a preferred destination for research evaluating the potential of cannabis medicines to relieve the symptoms of serious conditions.

NSW has a supportive environment for research into cannabis medicines. There are currently a number of universities and research centres across NSW conducting research in a range of fields. 

While showing therapeutic potential, cannabis is a highly complex plant and significant gaps remain in our knowledge. We don’t fully understand the hundreds of chemical compounds that make up the plant or the intricacies of the human endocannabinoid system. 

Currently, most cannabis medicines available in Australia are unregistered, meaning they haven’t been fully assessed by the Commonwealth Therapeutic Goods Administration for safety and efficacy, although they do need to meet a quality standard. As with all medicines, the potential benefits and harms need to be rigorously investigated and assessed against established treatment options. 

The NSW Government therefore continues to encourage and support research in our higher education, health and industry sectors to drive advances in this emerging field. NSW is home to leading institutes including: 

Clinical research

The NSW Government is investing $9 million on clinical trials to explore the use of cannabis and cannabis medicines in providing relief from a range of debilitating or terminal illnesses. Information about these trials can be found here.

Information about clinical trials generally can be found here. 

Preclinical research

In developing medicines, preclinical research is the stage of research before testing in humans (clinical trials) is undertaken. Preclinical research includes studies using computer models, or laboratory tests involving cells, tissues or animals. Preclinical studies are important for helping to establish safe dosage levels and gauge effectiveness, as well as obtaining crucial information about:

  • Toxicity – studies are designed to establish safe limits for use and to identify potential unwanted and adverse (harmful) side effects.
  • Pharmacokinetics (PK) - looks at how the body affects a medicine and the way it moves through the body, including how – and the speed with which – it is absorbed and distributed through fluids, tissues and organs; how the body metabolises it – the chemical changes and processes involved – and how it is excreted.
  • Pharmacodynamics (PD) - looks at how a medicine affects the body and how the body reacts. An important part of PD studies is understanding the relationship between medicine concentrations and their effects (called ‘dose-response’ relationships).

This type of research is important for understanding whether there is a biological or pharmacological basis for cannabis medicines to have an impact on human health and whether further work in humans is warranted. 

This research can also provide clinicians with information about what dose of a drug to use in early phase human trials. More information about early-phase research is available at the NSW Health Office of Health and Medical Research website, which can be found here.

Care is needed when translating preclinical studies to humans

It is important to recognise that results from preclinical research, such as on animals or cell cultures, are not always translated to humans. Key differences include life cycle, genetics, tissue distribution and lack of coexisting diseases. 

In terms of medicine development, there are differences in the way medicines behave in the body – how they are absorbed, metabolised, removed, and the strength and duration of an effect. It is important to exercise caution when analysing preclinical research results and considering what these findings may mean for the treatment of symptoms in humans.