Hundreds of different molecules are produced by hemp and cannabis plants. A large portion of these have proven—through anecdotal evidence and formal research—to deliver a wide range of medicinal efficacies to patients, including anti-inflammatory, antifungal, and analgesic (pain killing) qualities.
One of the greatest potential benefits from the use of cannabis and derivative products is in the fight against cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute (part of the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), 1.7 million new cases of cancer were diagnosed in the U.S. in 2018, while 609,000 people died from the disease.
Decades ago, researchers made an interesting observation: Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), one of the major cannabinoids produced by cannabis, caused brain cancer cells (often used in research because they grow relatively fast) to engage in a pre-programmed “suicide” called apoptosis.
Cancer is a collection of more than 100 specific diseases involving common characteristics. These include normal cells “going rouge” and behaving abnormally, including dividing at a rate much greater than normal. When this growth becomes significant enough, cancer cells venture out of their area of origin. Different cancers spread at different rates and the disease can begin nearly anywhere in the body.
As cancer spreads and corrupts greater numbers of normally healthy cells, strange things begin to occur. Old and damaged cells that would normally die often survive, while new cells are formed, even though they aren’t needed. An accumulation of these extra cells may form a mass called a tumor. It should be noted that not all cancers produce tumors. Cancers of the blood, such as leukemia, typically do not result in solid lumps of tissue.
One of the most dangerous aspects of cancers is their ability to spread from their area of origin to other regions of the body, a process called metastasis. Interestingly, when a cancer spreads to another area of the body, it remains the distinct type where it originated. According to the American Cancer Association, “Cancer cells in the lung can travel to the bones and grow there. When lung cancer spreads to the bones, it’s still called lung cancer. To doctors, the cancer cells in the bones look just like the ones from the lung. It’s not called bone cancer unless it started in the bones.”
One of the greatest uses of cannabis is in the treatment of the nausea that results from chemotherapy, a common treatment for cancer. Many medical professionals recommend cannabis for their patients who must undergo this difficult therapy for conditions such as cancer and Crohn’s disease. “Cannabis is the only anti-nausea medicine that increases appetite,” said Dr. Donald Abrams, Chief of Hematology-Oncology at San Francisco General Hospital.
Understanding Cannabinoids & Terpenes
More than 113 cannabinoids and 200 terpenes (the molecules responsible for their sometimes pungent aroma of cannabis that provide medicinal benefits similar to their chemical cousins CBD and THC) play an intricate dance as they commingle in the human body to create something called the entourage effect. This theory stipulates that cannabinoids and terpenes work together synergistically to deliver benefits not possible if consumed individually (a product offering a single molecule, such as CBD, is called an isolate).
The significant number of cannabinoids and terpenes, amplified in their efficacy by the entourage effect, helps explain the wide range of benefits provided to patients by a single plant (hemp or cannabis). For this reason, cannabis and cannabis derivatives have been shown to not only kill cancer via the pre-programmed mechanism of cellular apoptosis, but also in the management of the symptoms of this common disease. This includes fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, pain, and the depression associated with hopelessness.
Several studies over many decades, dating back to 1975, have revealed the anti-cancer efficacy of the cannabinoids and terpenes produced by hemp and cannabis.
A 2010 study entitled “Cannabinoids Reduce ErbB2-driven Breast Cancer Progression Through Akt Inhibition” that was published in the journal Molecular Cancer found THC to reduce tumor growth, including the number of tumors.
Reported the researchers, “Our results show that both Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol [THC], the most abundant and potent cannabinoid in marijuana, and JWH-133, a non-psychotropic CB2 receptor-selective agonist, reduce tumor growth, tumor number, and the amount/severity of lung metastases in MMTV-neu mice.” The researchers concluded, “Taken together, these results provide a strong preclinical evidence for the use of cannabinoid-based therapies for the management of ErbB2-positive breast cancer.”
A 2006 study entitled “A Pilot Clinical Study of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol in Patients with Recurrent Glioblastoma Multiforme” that was published in the British Journal of Cancer involved nine human participants and claimed to be the “first clinical study aimed at assessing cannabinoid antitumoral action, specifically a pilot phase I trial in which nine patients with recurrent glioblastoma multiforme were administered THC intratumoraly.”
The study is one of the few to help explain and warn of the potential dangers of tolerance building in patients, reporting “no correlation was found between receptor-type expression and survival (data not shown). Because cannabinoid receptors are known to desensitise upon prolonged occupancy, it is conceivable that this may hamper the efficacy of long-term treatments.”
The research concluded that use of THC to treat diseases such as cancer and its symptoms was safe, but emphasized the need for further research. “In view of the fair safety profile of THC, together with its possible antiproliferative action on tumour cells reported here and in other studies, it would be desirable that additional trials—on this and other types of tumours—were run to determine whether cannabinoids could be used, other than for their palliative effects, to inhibit tumour growth.”
A 2003 study entitled “Cannabinoids: Potential Anticancer Agents” that was published in the journal National Reviews: Cancer found cannabinoids such as THC to “exert palliative effects in cancer patients by preventing nausea, vomiting, and pain and by stimulating appetite.”
The researchers also reported that cannabinoids “have been shown to inhibit the growth of tumour cells in culture and animal models by modulating key cell-signalling pathways.” The study concluded that the administration of cannabinoids is safe and poses none of the “generalized toxic effects of conventional chemotherapies.”
A 1975 study involving animals, not humans—the first to reveal the anti-cancer properties of cannabis—entitled “Antineoplastic Activity of Cannabinoids” and published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found two varieties of THC (delta-8 and delta-9) to be effective in the treatment of lung cancer.
The researchers summarized, “Lewis lung adenocarcrnoma growth was retarded by the oral administration of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC), Δ8tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ8-THC), and cannabinol (CBN), but not cannabidiol (CBD).”
Another study conducted in 1975 entitled “Antiemetic Effect of Delta-9-Tetrahydrocannabinol in Patients Receiving Cancer Chemotherapy” and published in The New England Journal of Medicine suggested that the smoking of cannabis flowers reduces the nausea and vomiting commonly associated with cancer chemotherapy.
This controlled, randomized, and double-blind study involved 20 human participants, not animals. Concluded the researchers, “For all patients, an antiemetic effect was observed in 14 of 20 tetrahydrocannabinol courses and in none of 22 placebo courses.”
The study also noted the biphasic efficacy of cannabinoids such as THC. “THC has been reported to have a biphasic clinical effect, with initial stimulation and elation followed by sleepiness and tranquillity,” reported the researchers.