Cannabis is well known throughout the world as a treatment for alleviating the side effects of chemotherapy and the symptoms of cancer. The antiemetic properties of the plant’s chief cannabinoid, tetrahydrocannabinol, led to a synthetic form of it being approved by the FDA in 1985. This drug, Marinol, is prescribed for severe chemotherapy-associated nausea as well as loss of appetite in AIDS patients. While most patients find that whole-plant cannabis works better than Marinol due to the therapeutic synergy between THC and other cannabis components, even isolated THC has improved the quality of life for thousands of people.
New research and real-world patient experiences support the possibility that cannabis can do far more than reduce symptoms – it may actually heal cancer itself. Just as preclinical evidence using cells and animals has indicated how cannabis manages pain and mitigates nausea, there is extensive such evidence demonstrating that cannabinoids directly kill cancer cells. The earliest study took place at the University of Virginia in 1975, where researchers found that THC inhibited the growth of a form of lung cancer. Subsequent studies published decades later have confirmed that both THC and cannabidiol (CBD), a nonpsychoactive component of cannabis, kill lung cancer cells and inhibit tumor growth in animals.
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After the original University of Virginia study, there was an absence of research into cannabis and cancer for decades. That changed in 1998 with the publication of work from Dr. Cristina Sánchez and Dr. Manuel Guzmán, researchers with Complutense in Spain. They showed that THC caused glioma brain tumor cells to undergo apoptosis, or programmed cell death. This is the cleanest way for cancer cells to die, as it prevents their cellular contents from spilling out into surrounding tissue and causing inflammation.
Shortly after the Complutense University study was published, a renaissance of cannabis-for-cancer research occurred. In addition to Dr. Sánchez and Dr. Guzmán continuing their work, researchers from around the world have also explored how cannabinoids fight cancer. Subsequent studies have shown that cannabinoids kill nearly all major types of cancers, including breast, colon, liver, prostate, pancreatic, and skin cancer cells, among many others. In addition to directly inducing apoptosis, cannabinoids have been demonstrated to stop the proliferation of cancer cells, prevent their spread to other organs, and inhibit the production of blood vessels to tumors (angiogenesis). Indeed, a review article from the journal Progress in Lipid Research by researchers with the University of Aberdeen stated, “Cannabinoids-endocannabinoids are anti-inflammatory, anti-proliferative, anti-invasive, anti-metastatic and pro-apoptotic in most cancers, in vitro and in vivo in animals.”
Any doctor or scientist will be quick to point out that just because something kills cancer in cells or animals does not mean it will translate to humans. This is entirely accurate, but the scientific evidence that the cell and animal-level results would work in humans is overwhelming. The strongest evidence was alluded to above – not only do phytocannabinoids like THC and CBD fight cancer, but our own self-made endocannabinoid do as well. All vertebrates have endocannabinoid systems, which consist of cannabinoid receptors, endocannabinoids like anandamide and 2-AG, and enzymes which synthesize and degrade those endocannabinoids. Many studies have shown anandamide also kills cancer cells through similar mechanisms as phytocannabinoids, such as via the activation of cannabinoid receptors. The fact we already have cannabinoids in our systems that work against cancer makes it far, far more likely that phytocannabinoids would work. For example, both THC and anandamide kill liver cancer cells through cannabinoid receptor activation.
Moreover, some cell and animal level effects have directly been shown to work in humans. Two studies by Dr. Guzmán’s team demonstrated that THC administration given to two human patients reduced levels of compounds involved in glioma cell invasion and angiogenesis. A 2013 study by Canadian doctors connected cannabis extract intake with a dramatic decrease in leukemia cells after chemotherapy and radiation failed. Another article from Canadian researchers with the Division of Pediatric Neurosurgery at BC Children’s Hospital postulated that cannabis played a role in two astrocytoma remissions. The authors stated, “During Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) surveillance in the first three years, one case was dormant and the other showed slight increase in size, followed by clear regression of both residual tumors over the following 3-year period. Neither patient received any conventional adjuvant treatment. The tumors regressed over the same period of time that cannabis was consumed via inhalation, raising the possibility that the cannabis played a role in the tumor regression.”
Another reason one would expect cannabis to fight cancer in humans is because of how well it is working for epilepsy. It is widely accepted now that CBD is effective in preventing seizures stemming from a wide variety of intractable epileptic conditions like Dravet syndrome and Doose syndrome. For many children, literally no pharmaceuticals could even reduce seizures slightly, whereas in many cases, CBD-rich cannabis extracts are completely eliminating seizures. It does not work for everyone, but the results are staggering considering that no other medicines could even work at all.
Just like cancer, there is preclinical evidence that shows how CBD stops seizures. Frankly, this preclinical evidence is relatively weak since it largely relies on chemical-induced seizures, whereas the genetically-driven seizures of Dravet syndrome are far more complex. Despite this disconnect, CBD is working in humans better than the preclinical evidence would suggest. A recent Israeli survey found that 89% of 74 pediatric patients experienced a decrease in seizures with CBD use, including 18% who had a 75-100% decrease. An early double-blind, placebo-controlled trial by cannabis pharmaceutical company GW Pharmaceuticals also found that CBD worked to control seizures. If these preclinical results translate to humans, why wouldn’t they do so for cancer as well?
What really matters is what’s happening in real people. Given how strong the scientific evidence is, one would expect cannabis to work extremely well against cancer. When given in the proper doses necessary, which can be achieved by administering a concentrated extract, many patients are reporting cancer remissions, including from terminal diagnoses. Many patients began experimenting with cannabis for cancer after the release of Run From the Cure in 2008, a documentary about a man named Rick Simpson who gave free cannabis oil to at least hundreds of people in Canada. Rick claimed that a gram per day of cannabis oil for at least 90 days could eliminate most cancers. Not many people took him seriously at the time, but eight years later, his claims have panned out. While his work was certainly not perfect, it revealed the fact that high doses of cannabinoids could have a direct impact on cancer. Over eight years later, immense scientific and anecdotal evidence has confirmed that cannabis fights cancer in humans.
Just in 2016, there have already been several stories of incredible remissions. In January, a local CBS affiliate shared Darren Miller’s story of becoming cancer-free from terminal lung cancer by using chemotherapy and cannabis. A February story from ABC news described a man named Randal Robertson with terminal bile duct cancer who achieved much better-than-expected cancer shrinkage by combining chemotherapy with cannabis oil. A March story from a Canadian news site explained how Cherl Pearson achieved remission from Stage IV ovarian cancer using just cannabis oil after chemotherapy failed.
As these cases demonstrate, cannabis extracts can impact cancer whether given along with chemotherapy or alone. For now, it is safest to combine cannabis extracts with conventional treatment if possible, as we do not know which cancers or people will not respond to cannabis for one reason or another. Of course, people who cannot use chemotherapy, like Cheryl, must rely on cannabis alone as their only hope. Those combining cannabis oil with conventional treatment should take solace in knowing that cannabinoids are shown to work synergistically with both chemotherapy and radiation. Cannabinoids can also protect healthy cells from the damage caused by conventional treatment.
This application of cannabis is being taken very seriously. Most notably, the FDA approved a synthetic form of CBD as an orphan drug for the direct treatment for glioma brain tumors. Although orphan drug designation is easier to achieve than full-fledged approval, there still needs to be legitimate evidence that the drug in question could work. Therefore, the FDA’s approval of CBD as an orphan drug is an admission that the compound is worth using. It’s hard to think of another alternative cancer therapy that has any form of FDA approval.
Given the safety of cannabis, all cancer patients should have immediate access to cannabis medicine if they desire it. Clinical trials are also required to determine what cancers are resistant to cannabis therapy, as well as how to optimize the treatment.