Study Summary: Cannabis for Cancer Care

Updated: Oct 3

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A 2016 research study entitled "Integrating Cannabis into Clinical Cancer Care" that was published in the journal Current Oncology and authored by California-based cannabis research pioneer Dr. Donald Abrams investigated the efficacy of the herb for a number of symptoms of cancer and cancer treatment (such as chemotherapy).

Dr. Donald Abrams


This literature review noted the range of potential benefits of cannabis use for cancer patients, including treatment for "anorexia, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, pain, insomnia, and depression."


"An increasing body of...studies supports a possible direct anticancer effect of cannabinoids by way of a number of different mechanisms involving apoptosis, angiogenesis, and inhibition of metastasis," reported the study.


Brief History of Cannabis for Cancer

The report provided a brief history of the use of cannabis for cancer, including an interesting story of the mummy of a princess that revealed her consumption of cannabis for breast cancer more than 2,500 years ago. Wrote the study:


The mummy of a princess revealed her consumption of cannabis for breast cancer more than 2,500 years ago.

"Much attention has been paid to the unearthing of the 2500-year-old mummy known as the 'Siberian Ice Maiden.' Discovered in 1993, her subterranean burial chamber included a pouch of cannabis among other archeologic findings.


"Magnetic resonance imaging revealed that the princess had a primary [cancerous] tumor in the right breast. It is hypothesized that the cannabis was used to manage her pain and perhaps other symptoms, or even possibly as a treatment for her malignant disease."

Recreation of the toking Siberian Ice Maiden


In modern times, in 1986, delta-9 THC (which the study describes as "the most psychoactive cannabinoid in the plant") was approved as a licensed drug in the form of dronabinol (marketed as Marinol) for the treatment of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.


"In 1992, the dronabinol indication was expanded to include treatment of the anorexia associated with AIDS wasting syndrome," reported the study.


Cannabis for Pain + Nausea + Appetite

The study examined the role of the human endocannabinoid system (ECS), noting that its microscopic CB1 and CB2 cellular receptors bind with not only the phytocannabinoids produced by cannabis and hemp, but also the major endocannabinoids—2-AG and anandamide—that are made by the body's ECS.


359 cancer patients with poorly controlled pain...found that the sublingual cannabinoid preparation [tincture] reduced both pain and sleep disruption.

"The CB receptors are not present to react with the phytocannabinoids from cannabis alone. They exist because, on demand, humans produce endogenous cannabinoids (endocannabinoids) that react with the [ECS] receptors."


"A randomized controlled trial of nabiximols (marketed as Sativex, a whole-plant extract of cannabis processed to have a THC:CBD ratio of 1:1) in 359 cancer patients with poorly controlled pain despite a stable opioid regimen found that the sublingual cannabinoid preparation [tincture] reduced both pain and sleep disruption," reported the study.

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The study's author wrote, "Clinically, I have observed that many cancer patients benefit from adding cannabis to their pain regimen. Although the effect on chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy has not been glaringly obvious, other sorts of cancer-related pain appear to respond."


The study noted that a review of 30 previous research investigations involving 1366 cancer patients receiving chemotherapy revealed that cannabinoids "were more effective than [the pharmaceutical drugs] prochlorperazine, metoclopramide, chlorpromazine, thiethylperazine, haloperidol, domperidone, or alizapride" as an antiemetic (anti-nausea) agent.


The study noted that cannabis, interestingly, is the only anti-nausea treatment that can also stimulate appetite.


Cannabis for Cancer

The research provided a brief history of the use of cannabis and cannabinoids in the treatment of cancer.


"One of the earliest studies suggesting that cannabinoids might have anticancer activity came from the U.S. National Cancer Institute in a paper published in 1975. Investigators reported that Δ9-THC, Δ8-THC, and CBD inhibited the growth of Lewis lung adenocarcinoma cells" in experiments involving no living creatures (in vitro) and in rodents.


The study noted that cannabis, interestingly, is the only anti-nausea treatment that can also stimulate appetite.

The study hypothesized that cannabinoids can induce apoptosis in cancer cell, a genetically programmed routine whereby the cells basically commit suicide. "Cannabinoids appear to induce apoptosis, probably through interaction with the CB1 receptor," reported the research.

Cancer cells under magnification


Human Trials Lacking

The study, however, warned against drawing hard conclusions about the anti-cancer efficacy of cannabinoids in humans from studies involving rodents. "Mice and rats are not people and what is observed in vitro does not necessarily translate into clinical medicine," it reported.


The study also noted the acceptable safety profile of cannabis and its constituent cannabinoids for the treatment of cancer. "Compared with most of the therapeutic agents that oncologists use in their practice, the side-effect profile of cannabis as medicine is acceptable."


"Compared with most of the therapeutic agents that oncologists use in their practice, the side-effect profile of cannabis as medicine is acceptable."

Conclusions

The study concluded that cannabis and cannabinoids may offer a credible alternative or supplementation to the traditional pharmaceutical drugs and therapies employed by oncologists for cancer patients.


"To be able to suggest a single agent that could hold benefit in the treatment of nausea, anorexia, pain, insomnia, and anxiety instead of writing prescriptions for five or six medications that might interact with each other or with cancer-directed therapies seems advantageous," summarized the pivotal review study.


View the original study.



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