Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide, with the number of cases rising every year. Despite this and the fact that cancer has dominated the medical world for decades, there still remains to be no cure in sight for this devastating disease.
However in recent years, a number of individuals have come forward with anecdotal evidence of how cannabis, and CBD products, have helped them to recover from cancer. Whilst this part of the public have made their own choice to use cannabis, scientists are also looking at the plant to see what benefits it could offer those suffering from cancer. Here, we look at some of the evidence and at the reasons why cannabis and CBD might have a future in the treatment of cancer.
How Can Cannabis Affect Cancer?
Cannabis has been used recreationally and medicinally, with varying degrees of legality, for decades. With more states now legalizing the drug, both the patients and scientists are enjoying improved access to it.
There are numerous studies that have helped us understand that different cannabinoids, natural and synthetic, have different effects on our health and wellbeing. The therapeutic effects of these compounds include being anti-inflammatory and relieving chronic pain. This is the reason a lot of people turned to cannabis in the first place; as a reliever for symptoms of cancer treatment. From this, they began to identify results and share other effects it had on them, which they attributed to the drug itself.
So let’s break this down into why cannabis, and its cannabinoids, might help in cancer treatment: Scientists are researching the idea that cannabinoids could be ‘anti-cancer agents’ and the International Cannabinoid Research Society (ICRS) has been set up to further study the use of cannabinoids for this purpose.
Across the Atlantic, in the UK, the University of East Anglia has initiated a lab-based study by using artificial lab-grown cancer cells and transplanted into mice to discover their results, before administering THC: the psychoactive compound in cannabis. This study and others similar are currently in the early stages of unlocking the potential benefits of the cannabinoids within cannabis, and are valuable to the understanding of how and why cannabis might help treat cancer.
The UK study is focusing on the opportunities that purified THC might offer on cancer cells. The results showed that the THC had an effect by the CB2 and GPR55 receptor molecules working together. They also reported that high doses of THC slowed the growth of cancer cells, whereas low doses had no affect.
For a better understanding of these receptors, the endocannabinoid system and its relationship to cancer, our article GPR55 – The Cancer-Causing Endocannabinoid Receptor and How CBD Might Reverse It can help you out.
The draw back of this test, and the landscape of cannabis research as a whole, is that they are being executed only in the lab and on mice. This limits our understanding on how this might translate to our own treatment, as trial-based data on human subjects is extremely limited.
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Can CBD Treat Cancer?
Research into the use of cannabinoids to treat cancer is suggesting that the use of a THC and CBD as a combined product might offer the best opportunities. As with the concerns drawn previously on how cannabis might treat cancer, there are the same problems when looking at isolated cannabinoids: it is really limited to lab and animal testing, so whilst results show potential, the outcomes could vary drastically when applied to real-life examples.
From the lab-based scientific research that exists, we can understand the ways in which different cannabinoids effect cancer. Results suggest that cannabinoids can:
- cause cancerous cells to die
- prevent these cells from dividing
- stop new blood vessels developing in cancerous cells and then growing into tumours
- stop cancerous cells from moving into neighbouring tissue, which could limit the chances of cancerous cells spreading into other areas of the body
Cannabinoids can also have negative effects when it comes to cancer treatment, as they can:
- encourage cancer cells to grow
- cause damage to important blood vessels
Can Cannabis be Used in Connection with Other Treatments?
Cannabis can useful for dealing with the side effects that come with the chemotherapy and cancer treatments. Such side effects include: nausea, vomiting, pain, anxiety, insomnia, and lack of appetite, but research has shown that these can also be managed with the use of CBD and cannabis.
Research into the combination of cannabinoids with the chemotherapy drugs gemcitabine and temozolomide supports the idea that a combination of cannabinoids with traditional cancer treatment might provide the most effective solutions. The results of these studies confirmed that THC was able to inhibit tumour growth and had strong anti-tumoural effects when used with the respective chemotherapy drugs. The study focusing on temozolomide combined the chemotherapy drug with both THC and CBD to achieve optimal results.
This suggests that combining cannabinoids with chemotherapy drugs may provide the most benefits for cancer treatment.
Clinical Trials and Current Research
As we identified, trial-based research that provides any concrete evidence of CBD or cannabis curing cancer is limited; anecdotal evidence is far more common. Outside of people’s own experiences, there are a few of examples of trials that help to confirm how cannabis and CBD can help treat cancer.
To-date, only one clinical trial involving subjects has taken place. This Spanish study responded to lab experiments that claimed the anti-tumoral results of cannabis: that highly purified THC issued in conjunction with other cannabinoids would inhibit tumour growth and angiogenesis (the growth of new blood vessels from others that help cancer to spread) in animal models and that this combination could potentially be used as antitumoral drug.
Of the nine people that took part in the study, eight showed signs of responding to the treatment. The study is able to give us an indication of the potentials of THC and cannabinoids to treat cancer and results showed no side effects; a great benefit of the procedure. However, the test was done without a control group, so comparison is limited and unfortunately all participants died within a year due to their advanced stages of their cancers. This early stage trial doesn’t give us concrete results, but it does give confidence to the idea that cannabis can be used in cancer treatment.
In the United Kingdom
The Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre (ECMC) Network funded by Cancer Research UK and the devolved Departments of Health are running the only two UK-based trials of cannabinoids for cancer treatment.
The focus of these trials differs to explore the use of both the synthetic cannabinoid Dexanabinol and the cannabis extract Sativex. These early stage trials have yet to showcase conclusive results, but they are accessible online to keep up-to-date with.
What’s the Future for Cannabis as a Cure for Cancer?
Currently evidence and research into cannabis and cannabinoids to treat cancer is limited and active research programmes have limited longevity, so long-term results can’t be confirmed.
Ultimately, researchers are aware that cannabinoids do affect cancer cells, but whether this is with long-term or short-term benefits, with negative or positive impacts elsewhere in the body, remains unclear. The bottom line for now is that there is no medically valid evidence that shows cannabis can cure cancer.