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Could cannabis become a main-stream treatment for cancer?
Attitudes about cannabis are changing, albeit slowly. While recreational use of cannabis will be legal as of tomorrow, there is still an air of ‘taboo’ about this ancient plant. Much of this stems from the fact that it has been illegal in Canada since 1923 and was even classed as a Schedule 1 narcotic in the U.S. (Schedule 2 in Canada). Because of this, the research into the health benefits has not been as widely researched as other plants and herbs.
With shifting attitudes about cannabis, however, that will undoubtedly change as more medical research is conducted into such things as the effects of cannabis as a preventative and treatment for cancer.
Currently, there are relatively few large-scale studies on cannabis and cancer, but there are almost 70 good general studies on the subject. These do not include the hundreds of studies on such things as cannabis and inflammation or oxidative stress for example, both of which are linked to cancer. There are also a number of studies into the effects of cannabis on pain and nausea, major symptoms experienced by cancer patients.
How does cannabis work?
Cannabis use dates back thousands of years. Hemp, which is derived from the cannabis plant, was widely used for its fibre, as rope, food and even as a medicine. Cannabis contains compounds known as cannabinoids, which interact with your body through naturally occurring cannabinoid receptors that are embedded in cell membranes throughout your body.
Among other things, cannabis is proapoptotic, which essentially means it triggers cellular ‘suicide’ of harmful cancer cells without affecting healthy cells. As an antiangiogenic, compounds in the cannabis plant also work to shut down the blood supply to tumours, which is why cannabis is being studied for its anti-tumour effects.
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) specifically recognizes a laboratory study of delta-9-THC, the main active cannabinoid in cannabis, on liver cancer cells. The study shows that this cannabinoid could successfully damage and even kill these cancer cells.
Some of the areas for which cannabis has been studied for cancer include brain, breast, liver, lung, lymphoma, head and neck, skin, colon and prostate cancers. One recent study also suggests that CBD (a specific cannabinoid) from hemp may be helpful against ovarian cancer, even reducing metastasis (spreading to other organs) and slowing the growth of cancer cells better than a current cancer drug, Cisplatin.
Another study of CBD in estrogen receptor positive and estrogen receptor negative breast cancer cells shows that CBD can also trigger cancer cell death in these cells and have little to no effect on normal breast cells.
Cannabis has also been widely studied and used for pain and even seizure disorders.
What are some other potential effects of cannabinoids?
The NCI has gone so far as to state that research shows cannabinoids may be able to do more than relieve cancer patients’ pain and inflammation. While additional research is ongoing and necessary, the NCI says cannabinoids may be able to block cell growth, referencing studies in mice and rats that have shown that cannabinoids may inhibit tumour growth by causing cell death, blocking cell growth and blocking the development of blood vessels that tumours need to grow. Since cancer is marked by the uncontrolled division of abnormal cells, the potential for cannabinoids to block that growth is a significant benefit. In addition, the NCI cites laboratory and animal studies that have shown that cannabinoids may be able to kill cancer cells while actually protecting normal cells.
While the research for cancer prevention and treatment with cannabis is definitely promising, more studies are necessary, especially now that the tide is turning with respect to public awareness and openness to the possibilities.
Connect With Cannabis is a monthly custom content feature that focuses on education around cannabis and its legalization.