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Does cannabis cure cancer? Can the plant really ease symptoms of chemotherapy? Cancer and cancer-related symptoms are among the primary reasons patients seek medical cannabis recommendations.
Yet, there is little human research that backs up the claims people make about the plant. However, a growing body of preclinical evidence suggests that cannabis has earned a place in the patients’ daily routines for a reason. Here’s everything you should know about cannabis and cancer treatment.
The four ways cannabis kills cancer cells
Over the past three decades, research on the anti-cancer properties of cannabis has slowly taken off. Efforts in several countries have made major discoveries in preclinical trials. Cell line and animal research have pinpointed four primary ways cannabis kills cancer cells. These include:
Preclinical evidence suggests that cannabis has an antiproliferative effect on cancer cells. If left to their own devices, cancer cells just continue to grow and divide.
One of the qualities of a useful anti-cancer medicine is the ability to halt the growth (proliferation) of malignant cells. As it turns out, compounds isolated from the cannabis plant have been found to slow the proliferation of various types of cancer, including breast, prostate, and lung cancers.
Metastasis is when cancer cells migrate from one part of the body to make a home on another. This process is why someone who was diagnosed with breast cancer may end up with cancer of the lung, brain, or elsewhere.
Metastatic cancers are among some of the most difficult to treat, and preventing metastasis is another major target for developers of anti-cancer drugs. As you might guess, research suggests that cannabis prevents cancer cells from spreading and adhering to new, healthy tissues.
A tumor has to eat. Tumors steal nutrients and oxygen from healthy parts of the body by developing new blood vessels. This phenomenon is known as angiogenesis and it is one of the mechanisms the tumor uses to grow.
In both laboratory and animal research, cannabis compounds have successfully halted the development of new blood vessels to tumor cells. This cuts of the tumors food supply and encourages death by starvation.
The final way cannabis has killed cancer cells both in laboratory and animal models is through suicide. That’s right, treatment with cannabis compounds caused cancer cells to kill themselves. The more technical term for this phenomenon is apoptosis, which is a natural capability of normal cells.
In a healthy person, cells that are damaged or aged can undergo a process of programmed cell death. But, for some reason, cancer cells have stopped responding to signals that would otherwise cause them to self-destruct.
Human cell line and animal research has found that cannabis compounds trigger apoptosis in cancer cells. This final blow actually kills the cell. Scientists have demonstrated that treatment with cannabis compounds can reduce tumor and cancer cells in rodents.
Cannabis for different types of cancer
Cannabis treatments may be more beneficial for some types of cancer than others. Thus far, research on cannabis as a cancer treatment is mostly limited to cells and animals. Unfortunately, lab rats are not a great substitute for clinical studies in living humans. However, the results of early research on cannabis and cancer are surprisingly positive.
Here are some of the cancers that have been responsive to cannabis in early experiments:
1. Brain cancer
Early studies in both rodents and human cell cultures have found that cannabis compounds halt the growth, spread, and migration of glioma cells. Glioma is a rare and aggressive form of cancer that begins in the brain and spinal cord.
Surprisingly, small human studies have shown signs of success with cannabis treatments. In a phase 2 clinical trial of 21 treatment-resistant glioblastoma patients, researchers treated participants with a pharmaceutical drug containing isolated cannabis extracts.
The drug in question contained both the primary psychoactive in the herb, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) as well as cannabidiol (CBD). CBD is a cannabis chemical which does not cause a psychotropic “high”. The patients were also given temozolomide, which is an oral chemotherapy drug.
In the trial, 83 percent of those treated with cannabis had a one-year survival rate. The survival rate was only 53 percent for those given a placebo. Another 2006 pilot study in glioblastoma found that THC delivered directly into the brain seemed marginally successful at prolonging life, though the study was far from conclusive.
2. Breast cancer
As mentioned above, cannabis compounds have shown success in some cancers more than others. While research on glioma is perhaps the most advanced, scientists around the globe are making headway in the breast cancer field.
Research suggests that CBD, rather than THC, seems to be particularly effective against breast cancer cells.
The anti-cancer effects of CBD were first demonstrated in 2006 when scientists discovered that the cannabinoid slowed the growth of certain breast cancer lines. In the time since researchers have also found that CBD treatment reduces tumor growth in mice that have been grafted with human breast cancer cells. In cell lines, the cannabinoid effectively triggered cancer cells to self-destruct.
3. Colon cancer
Research in mice found that CBD had positive effects against colon cancer. A 2012 studypublished in the Journal of Molecular Medicine found that CBD treatment reduced polyps and tumors in mice with laboratory-induced colon cancer.
These effects are corroborated by research published in Phytomedicine in 2014, which found that CBD treatment again slowed the proliferation and development of lesions, polyps, and tumors in animals with colon cancer grafts. As with other forms of cancer, the cannabis compound had an effect on cancerous cells and not healthy cells.
4. Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
In a 2013 study published in PLoS One, researchers suggest that cannabinoid medicines may be useful in Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The study found that cancer cells associated with the disease were covered in a particular kind of cell receptor that is responsive to THC. That receptor is the cannabinoid receptor 1 (CB1), and it is the primary binding location for the psychoactive.
While this finding is early and researchers have not yet put cannabis to high-quality tests in Hodgkin’s Disease, this research indicates that there is reason to further explore cannabis medicines as potential anti-cancer agents in lymphoma. Additional animal and human research is sorely needed.
Early in 2017, a study conducted at St. George’s University in London discovered that administering cannabis compounds after chemotherapy increased the death of leukemia cells cultured in the laboratory.
The team found that both THC and CBD had anticancer effects, but this potential showed the greatest benefit if the compounds were given after chemotherapy rather than before. Previous preclinical research has discovered that a synthetic THC effectively halts the growth of leukemia cells.
6. Liver cancer
Like all areas of cancer research, human trials of cannabis in liver cancer are needed. However, back in 2015, a Chinese research team found that treatment with a synthetic THC successfully slowed the proliferation of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) in cultured human cell lines.
Additional preclinical research has found that cannabinoid receptors are over-expressed on HCC cells, almost as if the cell is calling out for cannabinoid triggers.
7. Lung cancer
While it may seem counterintuitive, early laboratory research has found that cannabis compounds may be helpful in killing lung cancer cells. For example, in 2008, research published in Oncogene found that THC suppressed genes that allow lung cancer cells to develop blood vessels, potentially starving tumors.
Additional research published in 2013 has found that CBD successfully triggers apoptosis in certain lung cancer cell lines, causing the cells to die and decreasing tumor viability.
8. Prostate cancer
Both THC and other non-psychotropic cannabis compounds have shown preliminary effects against prostate cancer cells in the lab. While cell cultures are by no means a concrete comparison to human bodies, early experiments have found that prostate cancer cells have high expression of cannabinoid receptors.
In a 2012 review published in the Journal of Urology suggests that stimulation of cannabinoid receptors on prostate cancer cells (by a compound that fits into the receptors, like THC) decreases the viability of the cells. This is a good sign that cannabinoid medicines may prove to be useful therapies in prostate cancer, pending more comprehensive investigations.
9. Stomach cancer
A 2013 study published in the journal Chemotherapy examined the effects of a synthetic THC against gastric cancer grafts in rodents. The study found that rodents treated with the cannabinoid experienced a whopping 30 percent reduction in tumor growth over 14 days of treatment when compared to controls.
The researchers found that the cannabinoid compound killed cancer cells by triggering apoptosis, or cell suicide. Of course, there are some major differences between lab rats and human patients. None the less, this finding is particularly exciting.
10. Skin cancer
Cannabis as a potential treatment for cancer really took off in popular culture after the well-known activist Rick Simpson came forward about using highly concentrated medical cannabis oil to rid himself of basal cell carcinoma. After releasing his documentary Run from the Cure, Simpson inspired thousands to experiment with cannabis medicines.
While conclusive human trials of cannabis for various types of skin cancer are lacking, preclinical evidence suggests that there may be some science to back up Simpson’s claims. For example, a 2014 paper published in Life Sciences found that THC successfully reduced the amount of skin cancer cells in mice with laboratory-induced melanoma.
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Cannabis and cancer symptoms
Regardless of whether or not cannabis kills cancer cells, many cancer patients turn to medical cannabis for relief from severe side effects of chemotherapy and other cancer-related symptoms. Cannabis helps patients manage the following symptoms:
1. Nausea and vomiting
Already, prescription drugs containing synthetic THC are available to chemotherapy patients who fail to respond to other treatments. Research has shown that various cannabis compounds can ease stomach pain and quiet nausea and vomiting. These include THC, CBD, and a less common cannabinoid called tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV).
Pain is one of the most common reasons patients turn to medical cannabis. In a 2016 survey of 271 cannabis patients, 30 percent of respondents reported that they used the herb over prescription painkillers. 63 percent reported that they preferred cannabis over various types of pharmaceuticals.
3. Quality of life
Everyone knows that laughter is the best medicine. Cannabis is famous for its mood-bosting, euphoric, and relaxing characteristics. Though subjective, many find these properties to be beneficial for maintaining mental health.
The herb also helps consumers fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. These qualities can drastically improve the quality of life in those with cancer as well as other serious health conditions.
Which cannabis treatments are helpful for cancer?
Unfortunately for many cannabis lovers out there, smoking the herb is NOT an effective treatment for cancer. Neither is eating the occasional infused-brownie or lemonade. In fact, cannabis is not an approved cancer treatment in the majority of countries.
Yet, medical cannabis patients hoping to reap the most benefit from the plant utilize the herb in several different ways. While it’s vital to work with a canna-savvy medical professional before changing your treatment plan, here are some common ways cancer patients use the herb:
1. Full-extract medical cannabis oil
Medical cannabis patients hoping to incorporate the plant into their cancer routine often rely on full extract medical cannabis oil. Sometimes referred to as Rick Simpson Oil (RSO), medical cannabis oil is the concentrated essential oil of the cannabis plant.
This oil is often extracted from large quantities of cannabis using a grain alcohol or ethanol as a solvent. The solvent is burned off through the extraction process. This oil is perhaps the most powerful cannabis product available. Cannabis patients often take this oil both topically and orally, depending on the circumstances.
Edibles are a popular choice for strong symptom management, especially pain. Cannabis-infused foods provide a more powerful experience than simply inhaling the herb. Teas, tinctures, and baked goods are some of the most common forms of edible cannabis.
When consuming oral cannabis, the effects of the herb can take significantly longer to take effect. Expect to wait 30 minutes to two hours before relief.
3. Raw dietary cannabis
Believe it or not, raw cannabis is not psychoactive. Here, “raw” refers to fresh plant material that has not been dried or heated. While there is no significant research on dietary cannabis and cancer, many patients choose to incorporate raw cannabis juices, smoothies, and foodstuffs into their routines.
Very early evidence suggests that some of the acids present in raw cannabis, notably the precursor acids to THC and CBD (THCA and CBDA), have demonstrated anticancer effects. However, raw cannabis alone certainly won’t cure the disease. Instead, dietary cannabis is more like a superfood that promotes good health.
Inhalation is one of the fastest ways to feel the relieving effects of cannabis. However, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone who will suggest that smoking is healthy for cancer patients. Instead, low-temperature vaporization is thought to be one of the healthiest ways to inhale the herb.
Low-temperature vaporization will not provide a large enough dose to kill cancer cells. However, vaporization can be helpful in reducing nausea, pain, and improving mental health in cannabis patients.
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What’s still needed in cannabis and cancer research
The information presented in this article is a very small sampling of the research on cannabis and cancer. Unfortunately, the lack of human clinical trials means that no one can say with scientific certainty that cannabis is an effective treatment for cancer.
However, many patients around the globe are already incorporating the plant into daily life.
- The cannabis plant has been used in just about every culture for centuries and has been cited in ancient texts as having a healing effect on over 100 ailments.
- Currently there are 25 states where it is legal for patients to use “marijuana” for medical purposes. Pending legislation may open up opportunities for federally-funded medical research, including human clinical trials.
- In the mid-1990s, an Israeli researcher discovered a subtle system within the body that seemed to have a balancing effect on every other system. He called it the Endocannabinoid (EC) System.
- The EC system consists of a series of molecular receptors that are designed to receive cannabinoids. Our bodies produce some cannabinoids. Others come directly from the cannabis plant.
- Spanish microbiologist Dr. Christine Sanchez was the first to discover the antitumor effects of cannabinoids. Cannabidiol, or CBD, which does not have a psychoactive effect, has long been known as a potent anti-cancer agent because of its ability to interfere with cellular communication in tumors as well as in its ability to instigate apoptosis (programmed cancer cell death).
- THC (the psychoactive counterpart to CBD) has been shown to reduce tumor growth as well. Studies have been conducted on the combined effect of CBD and THC on a number of types of cancer. These studies are showing evidence of cannabinoids being powerful “herbal chemo” agents.
- If you have cancer and are considering using cannabinoids, here are some general guidelines that experts agree are worth considering:
- Do your own research
- Know your source
- Stick with natural cannabinoid products over synthetic
- Work with a professional healthcare provider trained in cannabinoid therapy
- Work with your body’s own healing mechanisms through a variety of means
Everyone responds differently to cannabis. Always work with a trusted medical professional before making changes to a treatment plan. The information in this article is intended for helpful and educational purposes and should not be used in place of medical advice or treatment.
- Beginner’s Guide to the Endocannabinoid System
- The endocannabinoid system and cancer: therapeutic implication
- Dr. Christine Sanchez Video Explaining the Endocannabinoid System and Cancer Research
- Cannabidiol induces programmed cell death in breast cancer cells by coordinating the cross-talk between apoptosis and autophagy.
- New Study Finds Cannabis Compound Could Have Even Greater Reach in Inhibiting Aggressive Cancer than Previously Thought
- Crosstalk between chemokine receptor CXCR4 and cannabinoid receptor CB2 in modulating breast cancer growth and invasion.
- Δ9-Tetrahydrocannabinol inhibits epithelial growth factor-induced lung cancer cell migration in vitro as well as its growth and metastasis in vivo
- United Patients Group website
- Are Websites that Claim to Ship CBD Oil to Non-medical Marijuana States Legit?