What Does the Future of Cannabis Cancer Therapy Look Like?

While synthetic THC, in the form of Marinol, has existed since the ’80s to help treatment-resistant nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy, research into treating cancer with THC and CBD hasn’t stopped there. Studies on animals has shown that these cannabinoids have a way of killing cancer cells, preventing metastasis and reducing tumor growth in certain types of cancers. Cancer treatment centers still face a long wait before clinical research can prove they work, but what do we already know about the future of cannabis cancer therapy? Research in the laboratories of the Complutense University in Madrid, Spain has uncovered the hidden mechanisms behinds pot’s fight against cancer.

Unlike THC’s other medical applications, scientists already know how it works

THC can kill certain cancer cells through a roughly established mechanism called autophagy-mediated apoptotic cancer cell death. First discovered by studying animals, a trial on humans with treatment-resistant glioblastoma revealed evidence that the same mechanism was occurring in humans, a great day in cannabis cancer research. What researchers don’t know is why THC targets cancer cells and not normal cells.           

Natural and synthetic cannabinoids will play a part, but endocannabinoids not so much

In order to avoid the “psychological effects” of THC (being high), some medical scientists have suggested ways of increasing levels of endocannabinoids in the body. These neurotransmitters that form naturally in the body activate the same receptors as does THC, but not in precisely the same way. Either by administering synthetic endocannabinoid compounds, inhibiting the enzymes that metabolize them and otherwise messing with the body’s endocannbinoid system, doctors have tried to beat around the bush to avoid giving patients a buzz. They’ve discovered that fuddling with the endocannbinoid system in such a way can be ineffective at treating cancer, and might even promote tumor growth in certain cases.

On the other hand, THC, which naturally occurs in the cannabis plant in high amounts, can single-handedly kill cancer cells, reduce tumor growth and metastasis in animal models through known pathways in the body. The side effects of natural cannabis medicine are generally well tolerated, with a lot of patient evidence to show for it.

Cannabinoids will be used in conjunction with other drugs

THC will already soon see itself mixed in with opiates for a less addictive pain-management program that’s more effective than either substance alone. Current strategies for fighting cancer rely on “combinational therapies” to target tumor growth at different levels; THC may one day form a part in certain combinational therapies.

Temozolomide (TMZ), a cancer drug used for some brain cancers, is fairly toxic for the rest of the body and can cause nausea and vomiting as a side effect. THC in the form of Marinol has been used to treat this nausea already, but some evidence shows that “treatment with THC and TMZ exerts a strong anti-cancer action in xenografts generated with glioma cells,” meaning THC helps TMZ kill cancer cells. Other evidence shows that cannabinoids act synergistically with gemcitabine, the benchmark treatment drug for pancreatic cancer. THC can also help overcome TMZ-resistance in certain types of cancers.

How will CBD play a part?

CBD already has recognition from the medical community for its ability to counteract some of THC’s side effects; CBD improves on THC’s sedative qualities and tones down its more potent psychological effects.

Aside from taming THC’s side effects, evidence shows CBD helps THC fight tumors. Administration of CBD and THC together “decreases the doses of THC required to produce tumor growth-inhibition,” and “combined administration of THC, CBD and TMZ produces a very strong decrease in the growth of xenografts generated with glioma cells even when low doses of THC are employed.”

Research into THC, CBD, CBG, CBC, THCV and the scores of other naturally occurring compounds that are unique to cannabis will soon reveal new ways of treating cancer. Doctors in the US are excited to have access to new and safer medicines, and curious to see what medical cannabis has in store.

“I am excited to see that SATIVEX is currently in US phase 3 trials for its analgesic properties, I would love to see a safer alternative to narcotics for chronic pain,” says Carolyn Cegielski, a gastroenterologist from Mississippi. “Unfortunately it will probably be years before any cannabinoid derivative will be available for its anti cancer activity since it takes forever for the FDA to approve anything.” Let’s keep out fingers crossed it doesn’t take too long, but until then medical marijuana states are full of patient collectives ready to lend a helping hand to those in need.

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