We know that weeds can mitigate the side effects of the disease and its treatment, but it can also work directly against malignant diseases.
As legalization of medical marijuana becomes more common worldwide, medical cannabis is prescribed by doctors and nurses to treat cancer-related side effects, either through the cancer itself or through treatments such as chemotherapy. Countless scientific studies have shown that medical cannabis has benefits in palliative care, including appetite stimulation, pain relief, and more.
But early research shows that cannabinoids can do much more. Data shows that medical marijuana has anti-tumor effects and may one day be used as a cancer treatment, not just as a medicine to relieve the symptoms of the disease. Well over 100 types of cannabinoids – the compounds in cannabis with different properties and chemical profiles – have been identified so far, but only a few have been tested for their specific effects. Medical marijuana has been proven in palliative care and the complexity of the drug shows that clinical trials are needed to uncover the full potential of the drug.
In 2017, there were more than 1.6 million new cancer diagnoses in the United States, and by 2030 cancer cases worldwide will increase by 50 percent compared to 2012. With these alarming statistics, new treatment options are more important than ever. Chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, targeted therapy and immunotherapy are the most common cancer treatments, but side effects are often severe, ranging from fatigue, hair loss, nausea, infection and more. Medical marijuana provides an important relief for patients who are dealing with these unwanted effects, but what would be if we could offer the drug to the patient as an alternative cancer therapy? We can avoid or reduce the serious side effects of other treatments while fighting the cancer and its symptoms.
We are not there yet, but while the available data are limited, the research that has been done so far on the antitumour effects of cannabinoids is very promising. The International Journal of Oncology published a study last year that suggests that cannabinoids can successfully kill cancer cells and increase the benefit in combination with chemotherapy. An early preclinical study we recently performed also found that cancer cells from blood samples from patients responded differently to the two main drugs in cannabis tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and tetrahydrocannabinoic acid (THCA).
A number of other laboratory and animal experiments have been performed in recent years for colon, breast and brain tumors. They suggest that cannabinoids can inhibit tumor growth by blocking cell growth, causing cell death and blocking the development of the blood vessels that tumors need to grow. We still have to make the leap to investigate these promising effects on humans.
The current approach of medical marijuana research and treatment in the United States limits the potential for new discoveries in the cannabinoid field. The current impact of the US market should not be underestimated as it accounts for 90 percent of all cannabis sales worldwide. By 2021, American market share is expected to fall to 57 percent as other countries, such as Israel and Canada, are adopting medical marijuana policies and funding research more aggressively.
Thirty states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes, but the federal government still classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug – a category for substances with high potential for abuse and no assumed medicinal purpose. This categorization has had a significant impact on research in the US.
There is currently only one single marijuana farm in the country, which is approved for the cultivation and procurement of research-grade cannabis. The Drug Enforcement Administration has so far limited the total number of US research organizations, but eased these restrictions in 2016. However, the Attorney General has not granted approval for any of the other 26 requested facilities. Despite a growing number of states legalizing medical marijuana, federal restrictions mean that scientists are unable to conduct high-quality research required for FDA approval, the necessary clarity about the benefits of cannabinoids for physicians and patients which they serve, would create.
With millions of new cancers per year, clear drawbacks to common treatment options, and positive indications from preclinical medical marijuana studies, the benefits of collecting additional data are clear. We need to conduct large-scale research studies to gain a better understanding of the capabilities of medical marijuana beyond palliative care.