Can Marijuana Really Inhibit Cancer Growth?
We know that medical marijuana is effective for managing the symptoms of cancer treatment- nausea, vomiting, pain, weight loss- but is it possible that it could also destroy cancer cells? Marijuana has been used for centuries as a treatment for hundreds of different conditions, but we’ve only recently begun using modern scientific testing to understand why. Wai Liu, a senior researcher at St. George’s University of London has recently uncovered evidence that cannabis may be used for more than just palliative treatment- it may also help to reduce cancer cell growth.
Before we can explain how this works, its important to understand marijuana and it’s varying effects on the human body. There are over 85 different compounds found in marijuana, collectively known as cannabinoids. The two major cannabinoids are THC (the chemical responsible for creating a ‘high’), and cannabidiol, or CBD, which does not produce psychoactive effects. In the 1990’s, researchers discovered the existence of the Endocannabinoid System, a network of cell receptors throughout the body which respond to the specific chemicals found in marijuana. Cannabinoids attach to Endocannabinoid receptors on human cells and provide specific instructions to stop producing neurotransmitters.
This may sound a bit strange. Why would turning off neurotransmitter production reduce cancer cell growth? Because neurotransmitters are responsible for telling the body to produce cancer in the first place. In an op-ed article published last year, Liu explains these findings.
“THC and CBD have been shown in a number of laboratory studies to effectively induce cell death in tumor cells by modifying the faulty signaling pathways inside these cells. Depending on the cell type, this can disrupt tumor growth or start to kill it.”
Basically, marijuana targets the cells involved in the cancer production cycle and tells them to chill out.
Liu’s first study tested the effects of six different non-psychoactive cannabinoids on leukemia cells. The results were promising and in 2014, he continued his research by testing both THC and CBD on high-grade Glioma, a very aggressive form of brain cancer. He discovered that that the combination of both chemicals helped to reduce or destroy cancer cells and were most effective when combined with radiation therapy. “Our results showed that the dose of irradiation we used had no dramatic effect on tumour growth, whereas CBD and THC administered together marginally reduced tumour progression. However, combining the cannabinoids with irradiation further impeded the rate at which tumour growth progressed and was virtually stagnant throughout the course of the treatment. Correspondingly, tumour sizes on the final day of the study were significantly smaller in these subjects compared with any of the others.”
Liu is not the only researcher to discover the benefits of cannabinoids in treating cancer. In 2007, researchers at Harvard University discovered that THC may cut lung cancer tumor growth in half and stop it’s ability to spread.
“Although the researchers do not know why THC inhibits tumor growth, they say the substance could be activating molecules that arrest the cell cycle. They speculate that THC may also interfere with angiogenesis and vascularization, which promotes cancer growth.”
Another study performed by researches at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco showed that CBD may help to stop metastasis (the ‘spread’ of cancer cells) in aggressive forms of breast cancer. New research is being conducted every day supporting the theory that compounds found in marijuana are an effective treatment for cancer. However, all the published research to date has been performed either in a lab or on mice and other animals. We do not currently have evidence from clinical trials on humans. Many of the researchers involved are eager to begin trials on real patients, but they are impeded by federal laws and regulations.
It’s not just a matter of getting a medical marijuana card, although it may be in the future. The research has been performed using specific chemicals derived from the cannabis plant and we do not fully know the effect of smoking or eating marijuana on cancer growth. Still, we may have found another clue to the great mystery of cancer. It looks like the future for cancer patients may involve more natural, plant-based medicine and less dangerous, life threatening treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy.