Anorexia and weight loss are common side effects of many diseases, especially cancer. And prior to the availability of highly active antiretroviral therapy, a wasting syndrome was a frequent clinical manifestation in patients with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection and advanced acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). The labeled indications for dronabinol were expanded in 1992 to include treatment of anorexia associated with weight loss in patients with AIDS (IOM, 1999, p. 156).
Are Cannabis or Cannabinoids an Effective Treatment for Anorexia and Weight Loss Associated with HIV/AIDS, Cancer-Associated Anorexia-Cachexia Syndrome, and Anorexia Nervosa?
AIDS Wasting Syndrome
Systematic Reviews Two good-quality systematic reviews included trials investigating cannabinoid therapies in patients with HIV/AIDS. Four randomized controlled trials involving 255 patients were assessed by Whiting et al. (2015), who described all of the trials to be at high risk of bias (ROB) for reasons not elaborated.5 All four studies included dronabinol, with one investigating inhaled cannabis as well. Three trials were placebo-controlled, and one used the progestational agent megestrol acetate as the comparator. The review authors concluded that there was some evidence suggesting that cannabinoids were effective in weight gain in HIV. A second systematic review focused on morbidity and mortality in HIV/AIDS as the primary outcomes, with changes in appetite and weight as secondary endpoints (Lutge et al., 2013). Seven RCTs conducted between 1993 and 2009 were included in the qualitative analysis. The trials compared dronabinol or inhaled cannabis with a placebo or with each other. In one study the individuals’ weights increased significantly more (p <0.01) on higher doses of cannabis (3.9 percent THC) and dronabinol (10 mg) than on lower doses. In a second trial, median weight was increased with inhaled cannabis (3.5 percent) by 3.0 kg (p = 0.021) and dronabinol (2.5 mg) by 3.2 kg (p = 0.004) when compared with a placebo (a 1.1-kg increase over a 21-day exposure). In a study with 88 evaluable patients, the dronabinol group gained an average of 0.1 kg, while the placebo recipients lost a mean of 0.4 kg (p = 0.14). The proportion of patients gaining at least 2 kg was the same in both groups. Most of the weight gain was in the body fat compartment when this was investigated. Changes in appetite, food, and caloric intake were not deemed to be evaluable in any of the studies. These investigators concluded that the evidence for the efficacy and safety of cannabis and cannabinoids is lacking to support utility in treating AIDS-associated anorexia.
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