Today, medical cannabis is widely-accepted to be beneficial for a wide range of conditions and symptoms associated with different types of cancer and for mitigating the worst effects of standard treatments such as chemotherapy. Controlled cannabis doses are now regularly prescribed for pain, loss of appetite, and nausea as well as for mental health issues that are often associated with cancer and treatment, such as anxiety and depression.
However, there is evidence that cannabis also has the potential to be used as a direct treatment for different types of cancer, rather than just a treatment for its symptoms. There are even several claims that cannabis can specifically target and destroy cancer cells while leaving healthy tissue intact.
A 2017 study published in the International Journal of Oncology claimed that cannabinoids can kill cancer cells. The results were also reported to be more effective when combined with chemotherapy. Another study found that cancer cells in blood samples were sensitive to tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA), two compounds in cannabis that are responsible for its psychoactive effects.
How Does Cannabis Kill Cancer Cells, Exactly?
Evidence for cannabis’s ability to directly combat cancer cells has been available since at least 1975. That year, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute published a groundbreaking study where tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabinol (CBN) were administered to mice with Lewis lung adenocarcinoma. Researchers observed that THC and CBN-treated mice survived longer, with many of them experiencing shrinking tumors or reduced tumor growth. Numerous other studies since then have demonstrated similar effects on other types of cancers.
Subsequent research seems to indicate that cannabis compounds are able to act on cancer cells by preventing them from communicating with each other, inhibiting angiogenesis and metastasis, and also by directly destroying parts of cancer cells.
A 2011 study indicated that CBD, in particular, is able to prevent the spread of breast cancer cells and induce cell death by hampering the way the cancer cells “communicate” or signal each other, while simultaneously inducing stress on the endoplasmic reticulum of these cells. This seems to be confirmed by other studies on colon cancer, where synthetic cannabis was shown to produce similar effects on colorectal cancer cells.
Roadblocks to Adoption
There have been challenges to the use of cannabis for general cancer treatments. Cannabis contains over 400 chemical compounds, and is notoriously difficult to control for in studies due to the wildly varying effects the sum of these can have from person to person. There are also different types of cancers, each presenting its own challenges to researchers.
Another problem is that lab conditions are quite different from real-world conditions. Killing cancer cells in a petri dish, rats, or even in specific volunteers is quite different from treating them in the real world. Even trials that show promise may not immediately result in a safe or repeatable treatment regime.
While cannabis shows plenty of promise in fighting certain types of cancer, it may be several years before cannabis-based treatments are available. In the meantime, however, medicinal cannabis is already readily available in most states to provide effective, safe relief from the worst symptoms of cancer and its treatments.