Marijuana has been used as medicine among humans for millennia. From treating cramping, earaches, malaria and everything in between, marijuana has had a long-term influence on the medical world. While there may have been no scientific basis for using marijuana back then, research about the cannabis plant's medicinal properties has become more and more common.
With the recent medical marijuana movement, marijuana is finally getting exposure as a reliable alternative medicine. Though marijuana was made illegal in 1947, several movements pushed against the statutes, arguing the medical benefits of consumption. Marijuana was then placed on the Controlled Substances act of 1970. It was labeled a Schedule 1 drug, meaning it had high probability of abuse and no medical use.
Despite this, several researchers began conducting experiments to see if marijuana really did have medical qualities. Some studies found that marijuana helps glaucoma, and other inflammatory diseases. Most notably, researchers found that when marijuana was given to patients undergoing chemotherapy, undesirable side effects decreased. Patients felt less nauseous, and were able to eat again. While these studies may be over 50 years old, they paved the way for more current research and hypothesis.
Today, many researchers are focused on new ways marijuana can be utilized in the medical field. One newer notion is the possibility of cannabis killing cancer cells, something that has only just begun being researched on. Though studies may be limited, we can evaluate how marijuana affects the body and if it really could kill cancer cells.
As we all know, medical marijuana has become legal in 32 states within the last decade. Though it is still not federally legal, these states recognize the medical benefits that marijuana can have on certain conditions. Common qualifying conditions for medical marijuana include epilepsy, HIV and multiple sclerosis, and cancer.
Though marijuana may affect conditions in different ways, the effects are a result of the cannabinoids. The human body holds an endocannabinoid system, which serves as a regulating mechanism throughout the body. Cells throughout the body hold cannabinoid receptors, which make us feel high when they’re activated by THC. However, the receptors (commonly known as CB1 and CB2) also help maintain other processes throughout the body, like sleep, mood, appetite and pain. Just think of it as another system our bodies have in place to ensure everything functions properly on the cellular level.
By understanding how compounds in marijuana interact with a person's endocannabinoid system, we can hypothesize how the plant can treat other conditions or diseases. Research has already found that several different cannabinoids can regulate blood pressure, reduce inflammation or work as sleep aids. While research is new, these studies show promising results for the use of cannabinoids.
Does Marijuana Kill Cancer?
While we know that marijuana helps with a variety of conditions, do we know if marijuana can kill cancer cells? While some studies point to yes more than no, it’s important to break down the research to really understand the results. The National Institute of Cancer (NCI) even recognizes marijuana research may point to a breakthrough for treating cancer and tumors. Delving into the current research is important to understand just how effective marijuana can be in killing cancer.
Some of the first research on marijuana and cancer was conducted by Dr. Christine Sanchez. She focused her work on the antitumoral properties of cannabinoids in breast cancer and other cancer cells. In one trial, Sanchez discovered that when a brain tumor cell interacted with cannabinoids, the cancer cells were killed. They then also used breast cancer cells from animals, and found the same results. This was the first step in discovering marijuana's power against cancer cells.
In a study from 2013, researchers sought to explore the activity of six different cannabinoids with normal cells as well as a combination with leukemia cells. They found that a several few cannabinoids "resulted in dramatic reductions in cell viability," meaning it killed off the leukemia cells. Researchers have stated that the results prove potent anti-cancer ability, and the cannabinoids can target and switch off the pathways cancer can use to grow.
Overall, these two studies suggest that certain cannabinoids really can kill cancer. The NCI also reviewed 34 studies of cannabinoids and glioma tumor models. After review, all but one of those studies showed that cannabinoids can kill cancer cells without harming other normal cells in the body. Though these studies were less specific and not conducted on living creatures, the results are promising.
Cannabinoid Effects on Different Cancers
While the previously mentioned studies were more general, several more studies have been focused on specific types of cancer and their interactions with marijuana. Though cannabinoids can have an effect on a variety of cancers, the ones discussed explain the common basis for reducing tumors.
Many researchers have chosen to focus on breast cancer cells in hopes that cannabis would diminish the tumors. Breast cancer also happens to be the second leading cause of death in women, and is responsible for around 30% of new cancer diagnoses each year. Finding a cure for tumor growth would be a tremendous step in saving lives. A study conducted in 2018 evaluated the cancer cells of triple negative breast cancer, the most aggressive type. By creating a combined treatment of CB2 receptors and a translocator protein, the triple negative cancer cells were inhibited and failed to grow.
In another study from 2009, researchers found that CB1 and CB2 receptors helped slow tumor growth of breast cancer. These receptors have such a strong influence because they are found in 72% of breast tumor tissue. Cannabinoids can also mitigate tumor spreading; this happens by inhibiting key signaling targets that cancer cells typically use to grow.
There are a number of other studies detailing more proteins and receptors in breast cancer that can be influenced by cannabinoids. Though these studies are limited, they have solid evidence that treatment or combined treatments involving cannabis can thwart the growth of cancer cells.
Prostate cancer is another cancer that is all too commonly diagnosed. Though many treatments involve castration to prevent spreading, research has turned to cannabis as an alternative option. A 2015 study focused on not only cell line treatment, but also the signaling pathways that are involved. Results showed that treatments with cannabinoids produced a cell growth inhibitory effect for all prostate cancer cultures. This was traced back to the activation of the CB1 receptors. By using cannabinoids, an increase in dead cells and cell viability among the cancer cells was found. The study concludes that endocannabinoids might be an alternative option to those who to not respond to common therapies.
Hepatocellular carcinoma is a cancer that begins in the liver and is the third leading cause of cancer-related death around the world. The survival rate is low, and when the tumors are advanced there are few treatment options. In 2011, researchers sought an alternative way to fight these tumors. They found that cannabinoids reduced the viability of two different cell lines in hepatocellular carcinoma. Tumor growth was also inhibited, as well as a reduction in swelling. These antitumor effects are yet another step towards using marijuana to kill cancer cells.
Melanoma is currently the most dangerous and deadliest form of skin cancer. Currently, prevention and early detection are the best treatments, though the latter requires finding the cancer early on. In this study from 2006, researchers found that melanoma cell lines have CB1 and CB2 receptors. When these receptors were activated, melanoma cells in mice decreased in growth and amount and increased cell death.
Like these other studies, CB1 and CB2 play a large part in reducing tumors. These receptors can be activated by certain compounds in marijuana, and they are found in numerous cell lines throughout the body. Since the cannabinoid receptors are so common, marijuana may easily be used to treat a variety of cancers.
Cannabis with Chemotherapy
Chemotherapy is a widely used treatment for cancer. Though many of these studies are aiming to find an alternative treatment with marijuana, chemotherapy is still known to be the most effective treatment. But what if something could be used to make chemotherapy even more effective?
A recent laboratory study has also found evidence that CBD, a component in cannabis, could help chemotherapy be more effective. When conducted with human glioma cells (glioma is a tumor often found in the brain), CBD was more effective at killing cancer cells without harming normal cells in the body. In another study, mice with pancreatic cancer cells were given CBD along with chemotherapy. They found that the cancer cells were inhibited, and survival rates of the mice tripled. Both of these studies are important for anyone undergoing chemotherapy treatment. Though there were no human trials, CBD can be used for a variety of purposes. By finding that a combined treatment with CBD has the potential to be more effective for the patient.
Limits of Marijuana Research
So, does marijuana kill cancer? While the studies point to yes, we can't quite jump to that conclusion. The main problem with these studies is that none of them have been conducted on people. This is due to several factors, all leading back to marijuana still being classified as a Schedule 1 substance.
The first issue is that since marijuana is federally illegal, researchers have a difficult time obtaining a way to even get marijuana to use for testing. Right now, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is responsible for overseeing marijuana for research. They establish production quotas and give out licenses, but they have only issued one license at this time. The sole license went to the University of Mississippi, which has a contract with the National Institute of Drug Abuse. Since they are the only place in the country with marijuana grown for research, the limited supply can hinder those studies. If a researcher seeks cannabis for research, they must apply through the NIDA drug supply program.
The other issue is that with marijuana being a Schedule 1 substance, studying the effects on humans is difficult to get approval for. Currently, a study must obtain both a DEA registration and demonstrate scientific validity. This will then be reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration, where they will ensure the safety and rights of the subjects, as well as assess if the study will have data that could meet the statutory standards for drug market approval.
Because of the roadblocks set up by the government, there is little that researchers can do to try and study cannabinoids and cancer in human subjects. While petri dish and rodent experiments are promising, they likely do not entirely compare to the makeup of humans. Until marijuana is removed from a Schedule 1 substance, human trials will likely be far and few between.
The Future of Marijuana and Cancer
While the marijuana’s place in the medical world is continually evolving, there is much to be done to ensure we find all of the benefits the plant can offer. While advocates have pushed for marijuana reform for years, the federal government needs to step up and at least allow more researchers to study it. If we dive deeper into the ways that marijuana kills cancer cells, we may find more significant and effective treatments for those diagnosed with a variety of cancers.
The good news is that we’re heading in the right direction. The DEA recently announced that they will allow new growers to register with their program in order to grow more marijuana for research. If more marijuana is grown, researchers will likely have an easier time attaining the drug for trials. Additionally, more states have legalized weed as each year passes. While 33 states have medical marijuana, 10 also have legalized recreational weed as well. If states enact more relaxed laws regarding marijuana, the government may soon follow.
All in all, the current research shows a potential for marijuana to kill cancer cells. Until we legalize marijuana on a federal level, studies will remain limited within the field. If more marijuana is grown for research, and more people are approved for human trials, we may just find out the answer. But in the meantime, we must continue to push for researchers to have more authority in the field. If cannabinoids can help kill cancer cells, we should be pursuing every avenue until science can support the previous research.