Do Cannabinoids Kill Cancer?


Lukas Barfield

January 23rd, 2018

Policy


Many people have seen the headlines “Cannabis Kills Cancer”, but does cannabis and its miracle molecules, cannabanoids, really stop the killer we call cancer?  Medical cannabis has long been used for palliative care for cancer patients. Oncologists, general practitioners and care givers have often used cannabis to stimulate the immune system, reduce inflammation and treat symptoms that accompany cancer treatments, such as, lack of appetite, chronic pain, depression and anxiety. Over time, anecdotal evidence emerged that cannabis was not only helping with the terrible symptoms of cancer and its subsequent treatment, but its powerful brand of chemicals, known as cannabanoids, were actually shrinking and stopping the spread of various types of cancerous tumors. Now in 2018, the evidence has moved beyond anecdotal and recent studies show promising results using the two most common cannabanoids found in cannabis, Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD), to fight cancer cells. Although results are promising, researchers agree that more studies are needed into the roll cannabanoids have in fighting cancer.

A promising avenue in cannabinoid based cancer treatment is looking at the roll cannabanoids have in promoting apoptosis. Regulated by each cell’s DNA, apoptosis is the process by which a cell essentially self destructs. Every day apoptosis occurs in billions of cells throughout the body that results in cell regeneration and healthy cell growth.  Conversely, in cancer cells apoptosis does not naturally occur and the mutated cells divide out of control causing havoc to the healthy cells nearby. Recent studies show CBD and THC both promote apoptosis in cancer cells through a variety of pathways in the body. A study conducted in Israel showed that CBD promoted apoptosis in brain cancer cells by reducing inflammation in the cells through the production of caspases. When released by a cell’s mitochondria, caspases act as cellular scissors that begin to break cells down, causing apoptosis.  A study undertaken in Italy in 2013 demonstrated that CBD promoted apoptosis by increasing the presence of a family of molecules called reactive oxygen species. These substances increase the amount of oxygen in the blood thereby slowing the growth of cancer cells, which thrive in oxygen starved environments. The same study showed that CBD increased apoptosis in certain types of prostate cancer cells. Other studies indicate THC may also affect apoptosis.

Dr. Christina Sanchez of Compultense University in Spain and her team have studied for decades how THC influences apoptosis in cancer cells. Her research shows that THC not only targets cancer cells, causing them to die by inducing apoptosis, but that THC does not negatively affect the healthy cells surrounding the tumor. Dr. Sanchez told the cannabis news show Cannabis Planet in 2014. “Cells can die in different ways, and after cannabanoid treatment, (cancer cells) were dying in the clean way. They were committing suicide which is something that you really want.” She goes on to say. “One of the advantages of cannabanoid based medicines would be that they target specifically tumor cells. They don’t have any toxic effect on normal non-tumoral cells. This is an advantage with respect to standard chemotherapy that targets basically everything.”

In recent years there has been a focus on combination therapies using cannabanoid medicines and cancer drugs.    In one study, the combination of THC and temozolomide, an oral chemotherapy agent used to fight some types of brain cancer, shrank glioma xenografts. Other observations indicate the combination of cannabanoids and gemcitabine, a chemotherapy agent used to treat pancreatic cancer, show synergistic tumor shrinking tendencies when applied to pancreatic cancer cells. Additionally, some studies indicate by using CBD and THC in combination, CBD increases the effectiveness of THC, reducing the amount of THC required to shrink a tumor. The reduction in THC is significant due to some of the unwanted side effects of larger doses of THC used to treat cancer, such as, convulsions, discoordination and psychotic events.

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