Marijuana As a Cancer Treatment? This Study Offers Early Promise

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doctor hands with marijuana symbol medical concept

Researchers may be just scratching the surface on cannabis’ medical potential.

Big things are happening in the legal-marijuana landscape.

In the U.S., the Republican-leaning state of Oklahoma voted to approve a medicinal-cannabis measure on its ballot in June, becoming the 30th state to green-light medical pot. Republicans traditionally have a more negative view on weed than Democrats or independents, which makes this approval that much more intriguing.

To our north, Canada is preparing to open the floodgates to legalized recreational marijuana. Parliament officially passed the Cannabis Act on June 19, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set an official sales launch date of Oct. 17. When legal, the Canadian cannabis industry could be looking at an annual influx of up to $5 billion a year.

A tipped over prescription bottle with dried cannabis buds lying on a doctor's prescription pad.

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

Are you overlooking marijuana’s medical potential?

But for as much focus as has been given to legalizing marijuana throughout various regions in North America, you may have overlooked the promise marijuana and its cannabinoids have demonstrated on the medical front.

While far from being a cure-all, cannabis recently scored a major victory from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). On June 25, U.K.-based cannabinoid drug developer GW Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:GWPH) announced that the FDA had approved its cannabidiol (CBD)-based oral solution known as Epidiolex as a treatment for two rare types of childhood-onset epilepsy, Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. Before this approval, there were no FDA-approved treatments for patients with Dravet syndrome.

In clinical studies, GW Pharmaceuticals’ Epidiolex ran circles around the placebo in terms of reducing seizure frequency in both indications, relative to the baseline. It becomes the first cannabis-derived drug to get the nod of approval from the FDA and, in the process, has sparked a cannabis conundrum in Washington, D.C., about whether marijuana, a Schedule I drug, has medical benefits.

Similarly, a synthetic form of tetrahydrocannabinol — the psychoactive cannabinoid that gets you “high” — known as dronabinol received FDA approval last summer. Insys Therapeutics‘ Syndros, as the drug is known, is designed to treat chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, as well as anorexia associated with AIDS.

A biotech lab worker examining a cannabinoid-rich liquid solution in a flask.

IMAGE SOURCE: GW PHARMACEUTICALS.

Could cannabis treat cancer? This study suggests it may be possible

Yet what could be really intriguing is what marijuana may be capable of with regard to treating cancer, and not just from a palliative sense.

recently published study in the online journal Oncogene from a group of mostly U.K.- and Italian-based researchers found that CBD — the non-psychoactive cannabinoid of the cannabis plant often revered for its medical benefits — may improve the effectiveness of treating pancreatic cancer in combination with a commonly used chemotherapy known as Gemzar.

The study itself examined mice with pancreatic cancer — specifically, pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma, or PDAC. In humans, pancreatic cancer is projected to be the 10th most diagnosed cancer type in 2018, according to the “Cancer Facts & Figures” report from the American Cancer Society. Yet pancreatic cancer will be the third deadliest cancer, with only lung and colon cancer claiming more lives this year. In fact, pancreatic cancer is still the only major cancer type with a five-year survival rate in the single digits (9%). The next closest is liver cancer, with a five-year survival rate of 19%. In sum, pancreatic cancer is possibly the toughest to treat of all cancer types.

Keeping this in mind, researchers examined mice with PDAC, giving one cohort only Gemzar, and the other cohort a combination of CBD and Gemzar. The results showed that the cohort receiving the combination lived three times longer than the cohort that only received the chemotherapy. Researchers note in the report that CBD is an antagonist of G-protein-coupled receptor GPR55, which reduced pancreatic cancer cell growth in laboratory analysis.

As always, there are absolutely no guarantees that what occurred biologically in mice will translate into benefits for humans. Likewise, no concrete conclusions can be drawn from this data, other than that additional research and testing should be undertaken. Still, there’s early promise in this data that should have cannabis enthusiasts excited about its medical potential.

A physician holding a cannabis leaf between his hands.

IMAGE SOURCE: GETTY IMAGES.

Location matters when it comes to medical-marijuana research

If there’s another positive takeaway from this study, it’s that it was conducted predominantly by Europeans, where restrictions on medical-cannabis research are substantially lower than in the United States. While I don’t want to make it seem as if researchers will simply flip a switch and progress this combination of CBD and Gemzar into human trials, it will be significantly easier to move such an idea into human trials — assuming efficacy and safety results remain promising — more quickly in Europe than it would in the United States.

As a reminder, the restrictive nature of marijuana’s scheduling in the U.S. makes researching its benefits and risks a chore. As a Schedule I drug, it has no recognized medical benefits, meaning it can take a while for clinical trials to be given FDA clearance to be run.

In addition, there’s only one federally approved cannabis grow facility in the U.S., at the University of Mississippi, meaning quantity available for medical research is also a big issue. Pledges were made in 2016, during the Obama administration, to increase the number of federally approved grow farms to be used for research, but current Attorney General Jeff Sessions has ignored more than two dozen grow site applications that would expand this supply.

In other words, location matters when it comes to medical-marijuana research. The simple fact that this study was conducted overseas lends hope that we may know if cannabis has cancer-fighting qualities sooner rather than later.

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