Does cannabis cure cancer? We asked an expert
For thousands of years people have used cannabis for recreational, ritualistic and medicinal purposes. In the modern era, the latter property excites a lot of people, and there is no shortage of wild claims about the supposed medical benefits of the plant. Of all the claims, perhaps the most bold is the assertion that cannabis can cure cancer.
Astounding testimonials about cannabis and its derived products shrinking tumours or curing terminal cases are easy to find on the internet.
Let’s start by asking what the medical efficacy might be. Contrary to what most people believe, medical uses of cannabis have been widely studied. A 2017 review by the National Academy of Science looked at over 10,000 studies. They found evidence for some applications of cannabis, including managing chronic pain and spasms associated with multiple sclerosis. There was also good evidence that tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, can reduce the nausea caused by chemotherapy. Indeed, a synthetic form of THC, called dronabinol, has been prescribed for just this use for decades.
But, crucially, there is zero evidence that cannabis has any curative or even helpful impact on cancer, despite enthusiastic claims to the contrary.
Why then is there such a gulf between public perception and scientific evidence? Part of this is misunderstanding. For example, an often aired claim is that high-dose THC kills cancer cells in a petri dish.
Other cannabis advocates are driven by ideological fixation, most often expressed in a sentiment that cannabis is “natural” and implicitly better than pharmacological drugs.
The drugs used to treat cancer after surgery can help to slow disease progression, but they don’t always stop cancer cells from spreading to other parts of the body, nor do they help with pain associated with some cancers such as sarcomas (rare bone cancers). There is a drug, however, that potentially does both of these things: cannabis.
Cannabinoids exert their effects depending on the tumor cell type. Synthetic cannabinoids coupled with the endocannabinoid system inhibit cancer cell proliferation and new blood vessels formation within tumors, thus minimizing tumor growth and invasion into healthy tissue, while also inducing tumor cell death. Cannabis kills cancer cells by coupling its effects to the endocannabinoid system. The endocannabinoid system is abnormally regulated in certain physiological conditions, state that allows cancer cells to multiply and migrate. This is an important realization, making the endocannabinoid system a very attractive and potent target for cannabis curing cancer research and pharmacological intervention for the treatment of various types of cancer. It is also important to note that cannabinoids exert their effect specifically on tumor cells, without having any detrimental impact on normal cells. Firstly, endocannabinoids are naturally occurring bioactive lipids within our bodies. Their activities are mainly mediated by two receptor – CB1 and CB2. The endocannabinoids together with their receptors and the proteins that are responsible for their production, transport and degradation make up the endocannabinoid system. This system is responsible for regulating numerous functions within the body including: Metabolism Reproduction Immunity Neuronal activity Cardiovascular tone Manipulating this system by administering synthetic cannabinoids is being recognized as a very promising tactic for treating many diseases and has been the focus of cannabis curing cancer research.
Preparations of cannabis plants have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. Scientists are finally starting to test the legitimacy of some of these folk remedies. In recent years, clinical studies have shown that cannabis reduces pain caused by diseases such as multiple sclerosis – indeed, many cancer patients use cannabis for its pain-relieving properties. Some animal and test-tube studies, however, suggest that cannabis may do more than just reduce pain; it may kill cancer cells and limit their spread.
However, the development of cannabis preparations and other pharmaceutical agents that mimic the action of cannabis in the body has been hampered by reports of psychiatric problems such as depression, psychosis and anxiety.
The human body produces chemicals that are similar to the active chemicals (cannabinoids) found in cannabis. These “endocannabinoids” (the Greek prefix “endo” means “within” or “inside”) help relieve pain and boost the body’s immune system. One strategy to boost the action of the body’s own cannabis is by inhibiting the enzymes that break down natural endocannabinoids.
One of these enzymes, called monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL), is found in healthy tissues such as the brain, bone and the immune system. Studies, including our own, have shown that inhibiting the activity of this enzyme reduces the growth of variety of cancer cells in mice.
A paper published in 2011 showed that treating mice with a drug that blocks the action of MAGL boosted the production of an endocannabinoid called 2-arachidonoylglycerol in healthy cells and in cancer cells. They also showed that the drug reduced the growth of cancer cells and halted their spread to other parts of the body.
In our own research, at the University of Sheffield, we have validated the anti-cancer effects of various MAGL inhibitors on mice with breast and bone cancers. The results will be published in 2018.
There is a risk that experimental drugs that block the action of MAGL may cause psychiatric problems similar to those experienced by some cannabis users. To get around this, we are pursuing a number of strategies to design and test new drugs that only enter and accumulate in tumour cells.
One strategy is called the “ball and chain”. We successfully attached our experimental drug, that blocks the action of MAGL, to a chemical “ball”. Once in the body, the block binds to proteins called folate receptors that exist in large numbers on the surface of tumour cells.
The folate receptor will allow the drug-chain-ball complex to enter tumour cells. Once inside, enzymes will break the “chain” and this will release the drug to block the action of MAGL. This will boost the production of cannabinoids by the tumours that in turn halt the tumour growth and spread to other parts of the body (see figure).
Our studies, carried out in test-tubes, have shown that the ball-and-chain drugs can kill cancer cells and stop them moving. Encouraged by these findings, we are now looking to validate the anti-cancer effects of the new drugs in mice.
The brain is protected by a biological barrier – the “blood-brain barrier” – that only allows the passage of natural substances such as water, gases and other chemicals it needs to function. We do not expect that our new drugs – with their ball-and-chain elements – will be able to gain access to the brain because of their large size. So we don’t anticipate that this new drug will cause any psychiatric problems. But it is still early days and we need to conduct more research to confirm our theory.
We are currently seeking funding to carry out research to find out if the new drugs that stop the body breaking down its own cannabis may be effective in reducing pain in mice suffering from osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that causes bone pain.
Treatment with drugs that stop the body breaking down its own cannabis in peripheral tissues, or drugs that mimic the action of natural cannabis outside the brain, may be a fruitful way to develop safer cannabis drugs for treating cancer. Who knows, these drugs may even provide a safer alternative to plant-derived cannabis because they can’t cross the blood brain barrier.
The main types of cannabis oil include:
CBD oil. This is a nonpsychoactive cannabis product. It doesn’t contain THC, so it won’t produce a “high.” CBD oil is prized for its therapeutic effects, including easing anxiety, pain, and side effects of chemotherapy.
Hemp-derived oil. Hemp is very similar to the cannabis plant, but it doesn’t have any THC. It can contain CBD, but its quality is usually considered inferior. Still, hemp-derived oil can be a good option if you live in an area that hasn’t legalized cannabis.
Marijuana-derived oil. Cannabis oil extracted from the same plant as dried marijuana leaves and buds has a higher ratio of THC. As a result, it has psychoactive effects.
Rick Simpson oil (RSO). RSO contains high levels of THC with little to no CBD.
While there’s not enough evidence to suggest that cannabis oil can cure cancer, it may offer relief from a range of lung cancer symptoms, including:
Cannabis oil, including THC and CBD products, might also help manage the side effects of conventional cancer treatments, such as:
Cannabis oils are sold as concentrated liquid extracts. The chemicals and ratios of each cannabis oil vary. If you buy from a reputable seller, the ratios should be listed on the bottle.
You can apply drops of the oil to the tongue and swallow. The oil may taste bitter. You can mask the flavor by adding it to a tea or other beverage.
Some cannabis oils can be vaped, but this can irritate your lungs. Plus, experts still aren’t sure about the long-term effects of vaping. Generally, vaping cannabis oil isn’t recommended if you have lung cancer.
Cannabis oils are generally deemed safe, but they can cause some side effects of their own, especially those derived from marijuana.
The THC in marijuana-derived cannabis oil will produce a psychoactive response. This is the “high” that’s commonly associated with marijuana use.
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In addition, this type of cannabis oil may cause psychological side effects, such as:
Physical side effects are possible with THC products. They include:
low blood pressure
impaired motor control
slowed reaction time
The side effects are typically temporary and only last as long as the high remains. Generally, they don’t pose any long-term health risks. But they can be quite uncomfortable, especially if you aren’t used to them.
If you try a marijuana-derived oil and find the side effects are too strong, opt for a CBD-only oil or a product that has a higher ratio of CBD to THC.
Hemp-derived cannabis oil isn’t known to cause any significant side effects, even at high doses. When people do have side effects, they tend to report diarrhea, stomach upset, and fatigue.