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Wissington sugar plant to swap tomatoes for cannabis-family crop to treat epilepsy

PUBLISHED: 12:01 25 October 2016 | UPDATED: 13:33 25 October 2016

British Sugar's glasshouse at Wissington will begin growing the active ingredient for a new epilepsy drug in early 2017. Photo: British Sugar

British Sugar's glasshouse at Wissington will begin growing the active ingredient for a new epilepsy drug in early 2017. Photo: British Sugar

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British Sugar will start growing the active ingredient for a new epilepsy drug at their Wissington glasshouse from early 2017.

British Sugar will start growing the active ingredient for a new epilepsy drug at its Wissington glasshouse from early 2017.

The company, which produced 1 million tonnes of sugar last year, will replace the tomato crop, grown at Cornerways Nursery, with a plant producing Cannabidiol, the active ingredient in Epidiolex, a newly developed prescription epilepsy drug, from the start of next year.

The company, which said it had made the decision to grow the new plant from a commercial standpoint, confirmed the change of crop had led to a consultation on potential job losses, but couldn’t give further details while the consultation was under way.

British Sugar employs 1,500 staff at its factories in East Anglia and the East Midlands.

The company signed a contract with GW Pharmaceuticals, which has developed the drug, but could not provide a timescale for the contract.

Paul Kenward, managing director of British Sugar, said: “The fact that we’re growing a crop that goes into a medicine that helps children who are really ill, with rare forms of epilepsy, and the fact that we’re helping trials at Great Ormond Street hospital, are valuable things that we think are worthwhile so altogether it felt like the right thing to do.”

He said: “Annually, we will produce enough of this ingredient to treat the equivalent of up to 40,000 children globally.”

The Wissington glasshouse channels heat and waste carbon dioxide generated from the Wissington sugar factory into an 18-hectare greenhouse used to grow crops.

For the past 16 years the nursery has produced 140 million tomatoes annually.

Mr Kenward, says he hopes the expertise they have developed in growing the tomatoes will help the company produce a consistent crop of cannabidiol.

Cannabidiol, which comes from a non-psychoactive variety of the cannabis plant family, is the active ingredient in Epidiolex, a new medicine which could treat rare forms of epilepsy such as Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, both of which affect children.

The drug recently completed trials at the Great Ormond Street Hospital, in London, as well as other hospitals in the UK, Europe and the US.

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