Marijuana Drastically Shrinks Aggressive Brain Cancer, New Study Finds

Over the past few years, research has revealed that marijuana can both destroy certain cancer cells and reduce the growth of others. Now, a new study in mice has found that when combined with radiation treatment, cannabis can effectively shrink one of the most aggressive types of brain tumors.

In a paper published Friday in the journal Molecular Cancer Therapies, a team of researchers from St. George’s University of London outlined the “dramatic reductions” they observed in high-grade glioma masses, a deadly form of brain cancer, when treated with a combination of radiation and two different marijuana compounds, also known as cannabinoids. In many cases, those tumors shrunk to as low as one-tenth the sizes of those in the control group.

“We’ve shown that cannabinoids could play a role in treating one of the most aggressive cancers in adults,” Dr. Wai Liu, one of the study’s lead authors, wrote in an op-ed earlier this week. “The results are promising…it could provide a way of breaking through glioma and saving more lives.”

In an email to The Huffington Post, Liu pointed out that while research surrounding marijuana’s cancer-fighting properties is nothing new, his team is the first to document its effect on the disease when used alongside radiation. “The results showed that the final effect was superior to the sum of the parts,” he said. “Hopefully, these results will support calls for formal trials in humans to test these combinations.”

Liu and his colleagues examined mice that had been infected with glioma and subsequently treated with radiation alone or in combination with varying levels of two cannabis compounds: THC, the psychoactive compound associated with the “high” sensation, and CBD, which doesn’t produce psychoactive side effects.

They found that the tumors were best treated by low doses of both THC and CBD that, when used in concert, made the tumors more receptive to radiation treatment. “Our data suggests a ‘triple threat’ approach using all three may be of value,” Liu told HuffPost.

The researchers also found that together, the low doses of THC and CBD produced a similar effect to a large dose of either compound, which is noteworthy because it indicates that patients may ultimately experience fewer side effects.

THC and CBD are just two of the dozens of chemical compounds found in the cannabis plant. While research surrounding the therapeutic effects of these compounds has been limited, a team of scientists from the U.K. last year found that a combination of six different purified cannabinoids can kill the cancerous cells found in individuals with leukemia.

Meanwhile, when used alone as a form of treatment, THC has been shown to reduce the size of other cancerous tumors and stop the spread of HIV, and CBD strains of marijuana have had a profound effect on children and adults who suffer from debilitating seizure disorders.

Despite these findings, marijuana is still classified as a Schedule I drug in the United States, meaning the federal government believes it has no medicinal value. The federally-funded National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) grows a limited supply of marijuana in Mississippi, which is used for government sanctioned research. Whilecritics have long accused NIDA of only funding experiments that examine the substance’s negative effects, the agency has conducted a handful of studies that look at its potential benefits.

Although 23 states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes, many experts argue that the lack of federally regulated studies of cannabis limits doctors’ and scientists’ understanding of the full medical benefits of the plant, resulting instead in a trial-and-error attitude towards treatment.

“You can find publications from the ’70s and ’80s that show pure cannabidiol is an anti-convulsant,” Catherine Jacobson, the director of research at the Epilepsy Foundation, told HuffPost last month. “And here we are 40 years later and we still don’t have any new information about this.”

 


 

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Cannabis and Cancer

People with cancer who must undergo radiation and chemotherapy frequently stop treatments rather than suffer the nausea, pain, and other unpleasant side effects. Years before any state had authorized the medical use of cannabis, a 1991 Harvard Medical School study revealed that nearly half (44%) of U.S. oncologists were recommending cannabis to their patients as a way of mitigating the side effects of cancer treatments.

In its 1999 review, the Institute of Medicine concluded that cannabis could be a valid alternative for many people living with cancer. Specifically, the IOM notes, “In patients already experiencing severe nausea or vomiting, pills are generally ineffective, because of the difficulty in swallowing or keeping a pill down, and slow onset of the drug effect.”

Since the release of the IOM report, new research has been published which supports the use of cannabis to curb the debilitating effects of cancer treatment. In 2001, a review of clinical studies conducted in several states during the past two decades revealed that, in 768 individuals with cancer, cannabis was a highly effective anti-emetic in chemotherapy. Other studies have concluded that the active components in cannabis produce palliative effects in cancer patients by preventing nausea, vomiting and pain and by stimulating appetite.

The tumor-fighting properties of cannabinoids have also been demonstrated in numerous laboratory studies, though not yet in human clinical trials. Researchers have observed that “these compounds have been shown to inhibit the growth of tumor cells in culture and animal models by modulating key cell-signaling pathways. Cannabinoids are usually well tolerated, and do not produce the generalized toxic effects of conventional chemotherapies.”

The Therapeutic Potential of Cannabis

While research in the United States has been sharply restricted by the federal prohibition on cannabis in the past, recent discoveries have increased interest among scientists in the more than 100 different cannabinoids so far identified in the cannabis plant. The International Cannabinoid Research Society (ICRS) was formally incorporated as a scientific research organization in 1991, and since its incorporation the membership has more than tripled. The International Association for Cannabis as Medicine (IACM), founded in 2000, publishes a bi-weekly newsletter and holds a bi-annual symposium to highlight emerging clinical research concerning cannabis therapeutics. The University of California established the Center for Medical Cannabis Research (CMCR) in 2001 to conduct scientific studies to ascertain the general medical safety and efficacy of cannabis products and examine alternative forms of cannabis administration. In 2010, the CMCR issued a report on the 14 clinical studies it has conducted, most of which were FDA-approved, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical studies that have demonstrated that cannabis can control pain, in some cases better than the available alternatives.

To date, more than 15,000 modern peer-reviewed scientific articles on the chemistry and pharmacology of cannabis and cannabinoids have been published, as well as more than 2,000 articles on the body’s natural endocannabinoids. In recent years, more placebo-controlled human trials have also been conducted.

A 2009 review of clinical studies conducted over a 38-year period, found that “nearly all of the 33 published controlled clinical trials conducted in the United States have shown significant and measurable benefits in subjects receiving the treatment.” The review’s authors note that cannabinoids have the capacity for analgesia through neuromodulation in ascending and descending pain pathways, neuroprotection, and anti-inflammatory mechanisms—all of which indicates that the cannabinoids found in cannabis have applications in managing chronic pain, muscle spasticity, cachexia, and other debilitating conditions.

Currently, cannabis is most often recommended as complementary or adjunct medicine. But there is a substantial consensus among experts in the relevant disciplines, including the American College of Physicians, that cannabis and cannabis-based medicines have therapeutic properties that could potentially treat a variety of serious and chronic illness.

The Endocannabinoid System

What is the Endocannabinoid System?

As one learns in biology, the human body has many systems – the circulatory, respiratory, digestive, and nervous systems to name a few. Each system has parts: for example, the nervous system is made up of the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. By the late 1980s, science identified a new human system – the endocannabinoid system (ECS) – also referred to as the cannabinoid system. There is a cannabinoid system present in all mammals – to include humans and 15,000 other species. 

The ECS has two main parts: cannabinoids, which are chemical neurotransmitters, and two receptors called “CB1″ and “CB2.” Cannabinoids activate receptors found throughout the body – in all organs, actually. In fact, all systems in our bodies are modulated by the cannabinoid system. This means that as a body system changes, it uses the ECS to do so. 

Science and popular search sites like Wikipedia use three classifications of cannabinoids:

1.  Endogenous cannabinoids (also referred to as endocannabinoids), which are produced by the human body

2.  Herbal cannabinoids, the kind found in the cannabis sativa plant

3.  Synthetic cannabinoids, produced and distributed by pharmaceutical companies

In each tissue in which it is present, the cannabinoid system performs different tasks, but the goal is always the same: homeostasis, the maintenance of a stable internal environment despite fluctuations in the external environment.

Cannabinoids promote homeostasis at every level of biological life, from the sub-cellular, to the organism, and perhaps to the community and beyond. Here’s one example: autophagy, a process in which a cell sequesters part of its contents to be self-digested and recycled, is mediated by the cannabinoid system. While this process keeps normal cells alive, allowing them to maintain a balance between the synthesis, degradation, and subsequent recycling of cellular products, it has a deadly effect on malignant tumor cells, causing them to consume themselves in a programmed cellular suicide. The death of cancer cells, of course, promotes homeostasis and survival at the level of the entire organism.

Endocannabinoids and cannabinoids are also found at the intersection of the body’s various systems, allowing communication and coordination between different cell types. At the site of an injury, for example, cannabinoids can be found decreasing the release of activators and sensitizers from the injured tissue, stabilizing the nerve cell to prevent excessive firing, and calming nearby immune cells to prevent release of pro-inflammatory substances. Three different mechanisms of action on three different cell types for a single purpose: minimize the pain and damage caused by the injury.

The endocannabinoid system, with its complex actions in our immune system, nervous system, and all of the body’s organs, is literally a bridge between body and mind. By understanding this system we begin to see a mechanism that explains how states of consciousness can promote health or disease.

In addition to regulating our internal and cellular homeostasis, cannabinoids influence a person’s relationship with the external environment. Socially, the administration of cannabinoids clearly alters human behavior, often promoting sharing, humor, and creativity. By mediating neurogenesis, neuronal plasticity, and learning, cannabinoids may directly influence a person’s open-mindedness and ability to move beyond limiting patterns of thought and behavior from past situations. Reformatting these old patterns is an essential part of health in our quickly changing environment.


For more information on the endocannabinoid system, and a variety of other cannabis-related topics, visit NORML here.