New Research Shows Potential for Medicinal Cannabis to Inhibit Cancer Cells

cannabis cancer

The body of evidence for cannabis as a cancer treatment continues to grow.

By Shish KaBob Seger

With new studies taking place at ever-increasing rates, it appears the promise of medical cannabis is increasing every day. The anti-inflammatory effects of THC and CBD, both cannabinoids found in cannabis, have been touted as treatments for everything from epilepsy to even Covid-19. Many studies have reported that the endocannabinoid system  could be a new interesting target for the treatment of many cancer types. In 2017, The International Journal of Oncology published a report saying “ Phytocannabinoids possess anticancer activity when used alone, and a number have also been shown to combine favourably with each other in vitro in leukaemia cells to generate improved activity. We have investigated the effect of pairing cannabinoids and assessed their anticancer activity in cell line models. Those most effective were then used with the common anti-leukaemia drugs cytarabine and vincristine, and the effects of this combination therapy on cell death studied in vitro.”

Now, new research conducted by the University of Newcastle and Hunter Medical Research Institute have demonstrated that cannabis derivatives can either kill or inhibit cancer cells. These anti-cancer effects have the advantage of working without impacting normal cells.

These preliminary conclusions are the result of years of studies by acclaimed cancer researcher Dr Matt Dun. The research was done in collaboration with biotech company Australian Natural Therapeutics Group (ANTG).  The company produces a cannabis variant that contains less than 1% THC tetrahydrocannabinol. Referred to as THC, this is the psychoactive component that gets users ‘high.’ The proprietary plant ‘Eve’, has markedly high amounts of the anti-inflammatory  compound cannabidiol (CBD).

“ANTG wanted me to test it against cancer, so we initially used leukaemia cells and were really surprised by how sensitive they were ” Dr Dun boasted to the media. “At the same time, cannabis didn’t kill normal bone marrow cells, nor normal healthy neutrophils.”

“We then realised there was a cancer-selective mechanism involved, and we’ve spent the past couple of years trying to find the answer.”

A recent medical paper “Can Hemp Help?” by international journal Cancers, investigated the potential anti-cancer benefits of both CBD and THC. “There are trials around the world testing cannabis formulations containing THC as a cancer treatment, but if you’re on that therapy your quality of life is impacted,” Dun said. “You can’t drive, for example, and clinicians are justifiably reluctant to prescribe a child something that could cause hallucinations or other side-effects.

“The CBD variety looks to have greater efficacy, low toxicity and fewer side-effects, which potentially makes it an ideal complementary therapy to combine with other anti-cancer compounds.”

“We need to understand the mechanism so we can find ways to add other drugs that amplify the effect, and week by week we’re getting more clues. It’s really exciting and important if we want to move this into a therapeutic.” 

Dun hopes the new studies can destigmatize a treatment that otherwise is taboo. “Hopefully our work will help to lessen the stigma behind prescribing cannabis, particularly varieties that have minimal side-effects, especially if used in combination with current standard-of-care therapies and radiotherapy. Until then, though, people should continue to seek advice from their usual medical practitioner.”

The National Institute of Health issued a report in 2019 extolling the potential  benefits of cannabis extracts in mitigating cancer cell growth. The report said “The ability of plant-derived and synthetic cannabinoids to control cancer cell growth, invasion, and death has been demonstrated in numerous experimental studies using cancer cell lines and genetically engineered mouse models. Also, different types of cannabinoids may have different modes of action.”

With an ever growing body of research on the efficacy of cannabis as medicine, the science behind the plant could serve as an impetus for nationwide legalization. 

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