There’s a reason we’re beginning to associate cannabis with the fight against cancer: it works. Anecdotal evidence and research alike have proven its soothing effects for those in need.
For countless patients, marijuana provides comfort and relief from the painful side effects of both their illness and the therapy used to treat it. In fact, the Federal Drug Administration has sanctioned the use of two cannabinoids for just this use—finding the active chemicals in cannabis to offer comfort when traditional treatments can’t.
But could the power of cannabis extend beyond managing chemotherapy’s side effects? New research suggests it might.
It should be noted that currently, the National Institutes of Health—the gatekeeper of all cancer research in the United States—includes no clinical trials for pot as a cancer treatment. That means that in the US, cannabis has never been studied in real human patients as a cancer-fighting therapy. To do so, researchers must unravel miles of red tape, ultimately getting the green light to proceed from the FDA, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
So, what’s the good news? Research scientists both here in the US and abroad have conducted plenty of laboratory studies and pre-clinical trials with seriously promising results. Here’s what their latest research suggests:
Cannabis May Kill Cancer Cells
As reported by the National Cancer Institute, rodent studies have pointed to cannabis having anti-tumor properties. Per the NCI, research scientists have studied mice and rats with human tumors and found that cannabinoids have shown these incredible abilities in the lab:
- Killing off cancer cells while leaving healthy cells be
- Keeping cancer cells from multiplying
- Inhibiting the growth of blood vessels, the life source of a tumor
“THC, the major active component of marijuana, has anti-cancer properties. This compound is known to act through a specific family of cell receptors called cannabinoid receptors,” Dr. Peter McCormick, from Britain’s University of Anglia, said in a statement.
Dr. McCormick is part of a team studying how cannabis—and THC in particular—makes use of a cell’s molecular make-up to inhibit the spread of cancer. His team’s hope is one day to synthesize the components of cannabis that combat tumor growth.
Cannabis May Shrink Tumors
In a 2014 study published in the medical journal Molecular Cancer Therapeutics, research scientists out of St. George’s University of London delivered fascinating and hopeful news on treating one of the most deadly and aggressive brain cancers affecting adults, high-grade glioma. Administering small doses of two cannabinoids, THC and CBD, in tandem with traditional radiation therapy shrunk brain tumors dramatically, the study reported.
That’s heartening news, as high-grade glioma patients face one of the lowest cancer survival rates, with only 10 percent expected to hit the five-year mark.
In this trial, scientists studied two groups of mice with this particular cancer: one group received traditional radiation therapy only and the other received radiation and small doses of THC and CBD. Researchers found that the mice in the second group fared far better. In the end, the combination of cannabinoids and radiation therapy shrunk the second group’s tumors to one-tenth the size of the first group’s.
Dr. Wai Liu, who co-authored the study, described the nature of the trial’s success, explaining that cannabinoids were a key factor in improving radiation results. “Our data suggests a ‘triple threat’ approach using all three [THC, CBD, and radiation] may be of value… Hopefully, these results will support calls for formal trials in humans to test these combinations,” Liu told the Huffington Post.
The Bottom Line
The latest research on cannabis as a cancer-fighter certainly offers great hope. Across the US and abroad, research scientists are looking to cannabis and its active components to kill cancer cells while protecting healthy ones, halt the growth of tumors, and even shrink them. Some preliminary studies have suggested that cannabis may aid in treating some cancers more than others—and may even prevent certain types altogether.
When it comes to cannabis and cancer research, the medical community may seem slow-moving—a factor that’s bound to be agonizing for anyone with a cancer diagnoses. In reference to a 2009 study suggesting cannabis may stop prostate cancer growth, Dr. Lesley Walker of Cancer Research UK encouraged caution and patience: “This is interesting research which opens a new avenue to explore potential drug targets, but it is at a very early stage—it absolutely isn’t the case that men might be able to fight prostate cancer by smoking cannabis,” she said in a statement to the British Cancer Journal.
In that statement, Dr. Walker continued with what we’d like to pitch as a rallying call to the cancer-fighting community: “More work needs to be done to explore the potential of cannabinoids in treatment.”
In the meantime, we’ll be standing by waiting for the good news to roll in.