Harnessing the Body’s Own Pot Powers to Fight Cancer

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The numerous drugs used to treat cancer after surgery are meant to slow its progression, but they don’t always stop cancer cells from spreading to other parts of the body, nor do they help with the pain associated with certain types of cancer.

But there is a remedy that can do both of these things—cannabis.

Preparations of cannabis plants have been used successfully for medicinal purposes for thousands of years, and we need to take up the practice once again.

While research is limited, some studies suggest that cannabis may do more than just reduce pain; it may also kill cancer cells and limit their spread.

Research conducted at St. George’s University of London, found the two most common cannabinoids in marijuana, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), weakened the ferocity of cancer cells and made them more susceptible to radiation treatment.

The human body produces chemicals that are similar to these cannabinoids, called endocannabinoids.

One strategy to boost the action of the body’s own cannabis-like system is by inhibiting the enzymes that break down our natural endocannabinoids, Aymen Idris, a researcher, inventor and senior lecturer of pharmacology at the University of  Sheffield, explained. One of these enzymes, called monoacylglycerol lipase (MAGL), is found in healthy tissues such as the brain, bone and the immune system.

According to Idris, writing for the Conversation, research being done at the University of Sheffield has shown that inhibiting the activity of this MAGL enzyme reduces the growth of a variety of cancer cells in mice.

He cited a paper published in 2011 that showed treating mice with a drug that blocks the action of MAGL boosted the production of an endocannabinoid called 2-arachidonoylglycerol in healthy cells and in cancer cells.

They also showed that the drug reduced the growth of cancer cells and halted their spread to other parts of the body.

“At the University of Sheffield, we have validated the anti-cancer effects of various MAGL inhibitors on mice with breast and bone cancers,” wrote Aymen.

The results from this latest study will be published in 2018.

Idris noted that there is a risk that experimental drugs that block the action of MAGL may cause psychiatric problems similar to those experienced by some cannabis users. To get around that, they are pursuing a number of strategies to design and test new drugs that only enter and accumulate in the tumor cells. This is referred to as a “ball-and-chain” strategy.

“Our studies, carried out in test-tubes, have shown that the ball-and-chain drugs can kill cancer cells and stop them moving,” he explained. “Encouraged by these findings, we are now looking to validate the anti-cancer effects of the new drugs in mice.”

The team at the University of Sheffield, a public research university in England, is seeking funding to continue research to find out if the new drugs may be effective in reducing pain in mice suffering from osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer that causes bone pain.

“Treatment with drugs that stop the body breaking down its own cannabis in peripheral tissues, or drugs that mimic the action of natural cannabis outside the brain,” Idris explained, “may be a fruitful way to develop safer cannabis drugs for treating cancer.”

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