Cannabinoids in cancer research: an overview

    August 16, 2022 3 min read

    Cannabinoids in cancer research: an overview

    There are popular rumors to the effect that marijuana has potential as a cancer cure. This is an overstatement. But there is a great deal of research underway on anti-oncogenic properties that appear to have been demonstrated by certain cannabinoids. 

    Recent attention in the press, for example, has been on a Harvard study that showed THC slowing tumor growth and spread in one kind of non-small cell lung cancer lines. Specifically, these were cells that over-express what are called epidermal growth factor receptors. This was donein vitro, and then in mice. In the mice, tumors were smaller if they were treated with THC than if they weren’t treated. 

    What the study really showed was that two different lung cancer cell lines express the CB1 and CB2 cannabinoid receptors, and that small amounts of THC meeting those receptors seems to inhibit EGFR-driven spreading. 

    You can read about that study here: 

    Preet A, Ganju R, Groopman J. Δ-9 Tetrahydrocannabinol inhibits growth and metastasis of lung cancerCancer Research: Experimental and Molecular Therapeutics, May 2007, Volume 67, Issue 9 Supplement 

    While this is not a cancer cure, it is encouraging enough to warrant further study. And there are many other studies like this one. 

    Cancer memes tend to be reductionist. They confuse ‘cure’ with ‘manage’, they say ‘show’ misleadingly, and they operate on the assumption that all cancers are the same, ignoring the varied and complex pathways – not all of them yet understood – that function in cancers. Nor is there much understanding in the popular mind about how drug development trials work in general. 'Marijuana', too, bears defining. Plant strains vary, and mutate, and contain as many as 140 different cannabinoid ingredients. It is not marijuana that's being investigated. It is each of these cannabinoids individually, against controls, as scientific protocol dictates. 

    There have been no clinical trials of cannabinoid efficacy in cancer patients yet, but the preclinical work, on CBD in particular, is worth watching. CBD is the cannabinoid best understood at the moment, and it’s the one that passes regulatory muster most easily. (Small amounts of it go into topical skin creams for non-cancerous conditions already.) It is known that CBD does not work in cancer the way THC does. The former drives cell death through CB receptor-dependent pathways, the latter through orphan G-protein coupled receptors and non-GPRC-mediated signalling too. Biochemically speaking, these are different research domains. It is also known that, because some cannabinoids exhibit oncological efficacy independently of CB1 or 2, it is possible that there are yet undiscovered cannabinoid receptors. There is much foundational research ahead. 

    If you’re a scientist, or an interested layperson, you can read about the latest state of the research, on CBD and other cannabinoid molecules, in review articles like this one: 

    Mangal N, Erridge S, Habib N, Sadanandam A, Reebye V, Sodergren MH. Cannabinoids in the landscape of cancer. Journal of Cancer Research and Clinical Oncology, September 2021, Voume 147, Issue 9, pp. 2507-2534

    Where does all this cancer research focus? On what therapeutic areas? Just by way of example, there now exists useful data in cell lines in pancreatic adenocarcinoma, glioma cell tumors in the brain, some mammary carcinomas, colorectal and hepatocellular carcinomas, and some prostate and gynecological cancers. One of the surprise features of some of these studies (and a newly compounding variable) is that cannabinoids may sometimes turn out to function best when used in co-administration with other drugs. 

    It is wise to remember that translating these encouraging findings into clinical trials (this is spoken of as ‘translational medicine’) will be another hurdle in cancer therapy. Lab data alone doesn’t enlighten researchers about the many factors in cannabinoid pharmacokinetics or bioactivity either – on critical things like how they are absorbed and metabolised, how they work with other molecules, and how they clear the system. Cannabinoids don’t dissolve well in water, furthermore, and they can be unstable in light, oxidation, or temperature changes. This means that putting them into effective formulations will be tricky. 

    The road from cannabinoid research to cancer management will be long, in other words. But much useful knowledge has been accumulated already, and the rate of new studies is increasing steeply. 

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    The foregoing is a report on trends and developments in the cannabinoid industry. No product described herein is intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease or syndrome.