The disease that persistently plagues us today is cancer.
Cancer is an umbrella term that essentially results in gross proliferation of certain cell types throughout the body and can form (metastasize) in many different ways. The result is always the same, hyper-growth of a certain group of cells, depriving our bodies’ natural cells from properly functioning and surviving.
One particular variety of cancer that is having a detrimental impact on sub-Saharan Africa is cervical cancer.
Currently, there are a quarter million African women who die of cervical cancer a year, demanding further research into inexpensive and effective treatments. It has been known for decades that cannabis use helps cancer patients, though the science behind cannabis’s effect is not well understood.
While there are many ways in which cancer can form, there seem to be some common features, and they revolve around a cellular function known as apoptosis. Apoptosis, otherwise described as “programmed cell-death,” is a last resort effort in preventing the spread of malfunctioning cells.
The cell is at a constant equilibrium of anti/pro apoptotic signals, when the pro-signals “outnumber” the anti-signals, the cell initiates a cascade of reactions resulting in cellular self-destruction.
One common way in which cancer manifests itself is in the hyper-expression of anti-apoptotic signals, preventing the cell from self-destructing, resulting in over-growth and tumor development. One of the prominent signals in the cell that is associated with cancer growth is a protein called Bcl-2. While there is not a mutation in the protein itself, there are a series of mutations that cause the cell to make too much Bcl-2.
Recently, a lab at North West University in South Africa did a series of experiments using extracts from cannabis sativa. The researchers used a “cancer model” to perform their experiments on. (One example of these “model cancer” cells are the HeLa cells, an immortalized cell line that is widely used in molecular biology.)
It was discovered that cannabis sativa extract could not only inhibit the growth of cancer cells, but in some cases outright kill the cells.
The compound in the extract that is believed to be active is cannabidiol, better known as CBD. Researchers believe that the mechanism of action is that CBD activates a Bcl-2 degradation pathway. If you recall, Bcl-2 is an anti-apoptotic signal (keeping the cell alive), so if it is degraded, then the cell will succeed in killing itself.
Further research needs to be conducted to better understand the mechanism in detail, as well as exploring potential off-target effects. It would not be a good idea to use a drug that killed all cells!
There is an increasing need for affordable medical care around the world, and this is a potential, inexpensive treatment with the promise of saving lives.