Laboratory data suggests cannabinoids effective against cancer
Kathryn E. Vinson, MS, CCRC
Okay friends, I’m going to address the elephant in the room: medical marijuana. Its comes with passionate views on both sides, so let’s talk about it from a scientific standpoint.
One of the things that you may have noticed from my previous posts is that I am very passionate (translate passionate to stubborn and hardheaded) about finding good data. A story on social media, or even a syndicated news program, just doesn’t do it for me – I want to know that this breakthrough or whatever is being reported is backed by sound data and information. My background in clinical research is partly to blame. Unless I know that evidence comes from a controlled study, I look at it very skeptically. Such has been the case with the miracles associated with medical marijuana and other cannabinoids that we see reported daily on our social media feeds. From lupus to fibromyalgia to cancers to Parkinson’s Disease, the reports have been a multitude. While my heart wants to believe all of these stories, my brain has been skeptical. I’ve mentioned before what one of my psychology professors once said – you cannot define causation by correlation. In this case – just because the cannabis derivative was taken in some timeframe relative to the relief of symptoms – we can’t say for sure that it definitively caused it.
Well, some of that may be changing. The British Journal of Pharmacology reported that researchers have released findings showing increased survival in patients treated with cannabinoids plus standard treatment over patients treated with a placebo plus standard treatment. So, here is little bit of science. We all have receptors on our cells for cannabinoids – whether they be phytocannabinoids, endogenous (made inside us), or synthetic. These receptors are known as CB1 and CB2. Researchers know that both THC (the compound in marijuana that is psychotropic) and CBD (cannabinol) will bind to and activate these receptors, although THC does so with greater effectiveness than CBD. Previous studies dating back to the 1970s (before the discovery of the receptors) showed that cannabinoids had anti-tumor effects on a wide range of cancers. The limiting factor of these studies is that they were tissue studies, or possibly studies that looked back, but weren’t those controlled studies that I spoke of earlier.
What is refreshing to me as a research coordinator, is to see that this paper reports some results from two randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind studies. Okay, that’s a lot of research talk, so let me explain why those are important. Double-blind trials are those in which neither the research team (the study doctor/investigator, the nurse/coordinator, lab techs at the site, etc.), nor the participant (read patient) know what you are receiving. The study drugs are packaged the same, and look the same as the placebo. This way, there is no way that the study team can influence a participant with knowledge of which treatment arm they were put in. Randomization in a trial is the treatment arms – in this case, a standard treatment plus cannabinoids versus standard treatment plus a placebo. The later of the two trials, released in 2017, showed 83% one-year survival rate in the study treatment arm versus 53% in the placebo group. Despite these amazing results, the study is unfortunately limited by its small size – only 21 patients were enrolled.
Wanting to know if there are more trials out there studying these effects I searched for Clinical Trials on clinicaltrials.gov. If you haven’t checked out this website yet, I really encourage you to do so. Click over to our clinical trials page linked above for an overview on how to use the system. By searching for “cancer” and “cannabinoid”, I was given 15 results. Some studies are enrolling, some are in the conduct phase, and some have completed. While some of these are studying pain relief, many are looking at cannabinoids for their anti-tumor abilities in diseases such as pancreatic cancer, liver cancer, and other solid tumors.
So, what’s the bottom line here? Basically, the compounds are being studied, regardless of what you may hear on the news; however, they can be difficult studies to conduct given the psychoactive properties of THC (if the compound includes THC). Retrospective studies, studies on cells outside of the body, and even a couple of human trials are showing promise, but the jury is still out. With many states now allowing the purchase of cannabinoids for medical use, it may be worth discussing this with your physician. Keep in mind though, that these are not FDA approved. This is neither an endorsement nor a bashing of cannabinoids or medical marijuana – just getting the information to you, my friends.
As always, much love, abundant blessings, and many prayers to all of the cancer warriors and their families.