Bordeaux-based Aelis Farma will use €20M in fresh funding to develop a new treatment for cannabis addiction and cannabis-induced psychosis, as well as a therapy for cognitive deficits in Down’s syndrome. 

The funding consists of €11M from a financing round coming mostly from regional investors, in addition to €9M raised through research grants. The money will allow Aelis pharma to complete a phase II clinical trial testing its lead drug in people with cannabis addiction. 

There is currently no treatment for cannabis addiction or for cases of psychosis caused by cannabis consumption. The main challenge is that the human cannabinoid system, which is affected by cannabis, is also involved in multiple essential neurological processes, including cognition, appetite, pain, mood and memory. This means drugs targeting the cannabinoid system would likely cause severe side effects.

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“The challenge of targeting the central nervous system is often the side effects, not the efficacy,” Pier Vincenzo Piazza, CEO of Aelis Farma told me. 

Piazza founded the company in 2014 after the research group he led at the French national institute Inserm discovered a natural mechanism to protect the brain from the negative effects of high levels of THC, the chemical responsible for the psychological effects of cannabis use. In particular, the drugs developed by Aelis Farma specifically inhibit a protein receptor called CB1.

“We have developed a new generation of inhibitors that has proven very efficacious in animal models with no side effect whatsoever,” Piazza told me. “It specifically targets the hyperactivity of the CB1 receptor involved in disease but preserving normal physiological behavior.”

Cannabis addiction is estimated to affect 9% of cannabis users, which amounts to around 22 million people worldwide. Pizza noted that, as the number of countries legalizing cannabis increases, the number of addiction and psychosis cases induced by cannabis may rise in the near future.

Aelis Farma plans to complete the phase II trial by 2020, using the results to inform the design of phase III studies that, if successful, may lead to the approval of the drug by 2025. 

The company will also use part of the funds to take a second drug candidate into a first trial in humans. The compound is intended to address cognitive deficits in people with Down syndrome, as research has shown that the hyperactivity of the cannabinoid system may be responsible for cognitive deficits seen in this condition.

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