Aussie grandparents behind record breaking donation towards medicinal cannabis research

Financial Review rich lister Barry Lambert has called for reform of medicinal cannabis laws after his son was found ...
Financial Review rich lister Barry Lambert has called for reform of medicinal cannabis laws after his son was found guilty of possessing the drug, which he was using to treat his child. Photo: James Brickwood

In 2015, Grandparents Barry and Joy Lambert donated 33.7 million dollars to The University of Sydney for medicinal cannabis research - one of the largest donations to medical science in Australia's history. 

The Lamberts' four-year-old granddaughter Katelyn suffers from a potentially fatal childhood epilepsy condition called Dravet syndrome. To help manage her debilitating seizures, her father Michael Lambert turned to cannabis oil – a treatment that successfully decreased seizures in a US toddler with the same condition.

For Katelyn, the impact of the cannabis oil was dramatic. "It clears her mind," Michael told 60 Minutes. "It's making her less drowsy, less confused." Michael added that raw cannabis is not psychoactive, noting, "it doesn't make you high."

Four-year-old Katelyn with (left to right) grandmother Joy, mother Saowalak and father Michael.
Four-year-old Katelyn with (left to right) grandmother Joy, mother Saowalak and father Michael. Photo: James Brickwood

The Lamberts agree, describing that the benefits were clear from the very first day. "She was more active and she was happier," Mrs Lambert said of Katelyn, the couple adding that their granddaughter hasn't been hospitalised for her seizures for about 10 months.

With their generous donation – to research the "scientific secrets" of the plant – the Lamberts hope to prove its benefits.

"That's what the research is about, so doctors will be medically convinced," Mr Lambert said. 

"We're just doing what's right."

At the time of the Lamberts' donation last year, University of Sydney psychopharmacology professor Iain McGregor said the research would focus on 10 key "cannabinoid" compounds found in marijuana – and their potential use to treat illnesses such as childhood epilepsy. 

Now running the Lambert initiative, Professor McGregor said, "We firmly believe there's a great treasure trove of future therapeutics amongst the cannabinoids."

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In the meantime however, Michael is standing firm in his belief in the medicinal value of cannabis – and is growing his own supply.

"It's an amazing plant," he says. "It's given us amazing hope that there is a future for Katelyn."

Despite being transparent with doctors, police and NSW parliament, the father-of-one was arrested – and charged – last year with cultivation and possession of marijuana.

"I love my Katelyn and any law that says I have to watch her die and not look after her, is a stupid law," he says. "Medical necessity, right? You can't make a father watch his daughter die."

"We can see the damage," Michael says of his daughter who has an intellectual disability. "But we also know she has a growing brain…she's got a future. If we can stop the seizures we can give her that future."

"I would like to think that at the end of this process, we'll have two – maybe three – new cannabinoid drugs on the market," said Professor McGregor. "I would like to think that one of them would be for pediatric epilepsy, we'll call it 'Katelyn's drug', but I'd really like to have one for pain and I'd really like to have one for dementia too."

In August, in conjunction with Epilepsy Action Australia, the Lambert initiative announced the launch of the PELICAN study (Paediatric Epilepsy Lambert Initiative Cannabinoid Analysis). The research will involve an in-depth look into the use of cannabis-based extracts in treating childhood epilepsy. 

"Cannabinoids appear to be providing extraordinary therapeutic effects in some children with paediatric epilepsy, but we lack a clear understanding of how they are achieving this," Professor McGregor said in a statement.

"Through the PELICAN study, we will gain a better understanding of the cannabinoid components that provide these therapeutic effects, potentially leading to new medicines that could prove extremely effective."

Read more about the Lambert Initiative – and the PELICAN study  - here.