Cannabis-based medicines have long been used to treat the adverse effects of cancer and chemotherapy, such as nausea, weight loss, and chronic pain.
Now, research indicates that the endocannabinoid system — the body system with which cannabis interacts — can produce effects that directly attack pancreatic cancer and other cancers.
In fact, some cannabis-based compounds may limit the growth and even promote the death of certain cancer cells. Several studies have found that cannabinoids and other compounds found in the cannabis plant can make traditional pancreatic cancer treatments more effective.
While more high-quality clinical trials demonstrating safety and efficacy are needed, the research into such treatments is certainly promising.
How Cannabis Works With Pancreatic Cancer
The endocannabinoid system exists in all vertebrates and helps regulate crucial functions such as sleep, pain, and appetite. The body produces its own cannabinoids, which modulate and activate its various functions, but as its name suggests, the endocannabinoid system can also be modulated and activated by cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant.
Because the entire system was only discovered in the past 30 years, scientists still have much to learn about the myriad ways cannabis affects the human body.
Crucially, research indicates that the two main endocannabinoid receptors affect cell survival, proliferation (increase in the number of cells), and apoptosis (programmed cell death) — processes that hold the key to suppressing pancreatic cancer. This was demonstrated in a 2013 study where compounds that activate the receptors inhibited growth and promoted degradation of pancreatic cancer cells.
In particular, cannabinoids acting on these receptors appear to increase the production of ceramide, a biological compound that promotes apoptosis of pancreatic cancer cells. This was demonstrated by an investigation where the production of ceramide was involved in the apoptosis of pancreatic cancer cells induced by THC, the major cannabinoid from cannabis.
Such effects may explain why pancreatic cancer cells have higher levels of cannabinoid receptors than healthy ones. This suggests that the body is attempting to promote the death of these cells by activating cannabinoid receptors while simultaneously protecting healthy pancreatic cells — which maintain normal CB receptor levels — from apoptosis.
Furthermore, cannabinoids acting through CB receptors may have other anticancer effects that inhibit metastasis, the spread of cancer cells to other parts of the body where they grow new tumors. Namely, activation of the ECS may reduce the growth of new blood vessels by metastatic tumors and suppress the migration of cancer cells.
Activation of cannabinoid receptors has also been shown to stimulate the immune response against cancer by promoting immune cell recruitment and decreasing the migration of certain cells involved in cancer-related inflammation.
Taken together, current evidence suggests that activation of the endocannabinoid system produces antiproliferative, proapoptotic, antimetastatic, and other anticancer effects, which can be utilized to suppress and slow the progression of pancreatic and other cancers.
Medical Studies on Cannabis and Pancreatic Cancer
Research into the use of cannabis-based medicine for treating pancreatic and other types of cancer is in its early stages and most of the evidence is restricted to cell culture and animal studies. Nonetheless, the current findings are promising.
- A 2006 clinical study examined the benefits of THC in nine people with recurrent, aggressive brain tumors (glioblastoma multiforme). The study found that THC inhibited tumor cell proliferation in two patients. Additionally, the treatment was considered safe and did not result in any significant psychoactive effects.
- A 2017 study on the same type of cancer found that cannabinoid-based drug Sativex improved the effectiveness of chemotherapy drug temozolomide.
In addition to these early clinical trials, there are many more preclinical studies:
- One 2006 study found that administering THC or a cannabinoid-like compound to pancreatic cancer cells promoted their death and that this effect was mediated by one of the two endocannabinoid receptors — CB2. Furthermore, the cannabinoids were found to reduce tumor growth in mice with pancreatic cancer and the spread of tumor cells.
- Similar results were reported by a 2011 study where adding cannabinoids to gemcitabine, a pancreatic cancer medication, enhanced its ability to inhibit pancreatic tumor growth in mice.
- A 2019 review examined multiple studies looking at the use of cannabinoids in pancreatic cancer, concluding that, “cannabinoids may be an effective adjunct for the treatment of pancreatic cancer.” Similar conclusions have been reached by other researchers. For example, a 2018 paper noted that the anticancer effects of cannabinoids can enhance the effectiveness of standard pancreatic cancer treatments such as radiotherapy.
Aside from cannabinoids, cannabis contains another class of compounds that may have anticancer properties: flavonoids. For example, a 2013 study examined the anti-cancer properties of quercetin, a flavonoid compound found in cannabis and other plants. The researchers found that quercetin inhibited the growth of isolated pancreatic cancer cells and reduced tumor growth in mice.
A more recent Harvard University found that, alongside radiotherapy, cannabis-derived flavonoid FBL-03G decreased the survival of isolated pancreatic cancer cells, delayed tumor progression, and improved survival of mice with pancreatic cancer.
Other research suggests that higher dietary intake of flavonoids reduces the risk of some cancers, although evidence for pancreatic cancer specifically remains mixed, with some studies reporting lower risk with high intake and others noting no significant correlation.
This potential breakthrough benefit is in addition to relief patients get with marijuana in dealing with the side effects of chemotherapy and other symptoms of cancer such as loss of appetite, nausea, and others.
Potential side effects of cannabis use
Safety-related concerns about cannabis have been the main barrier to its increased medical use in cancer and other disorders. Most notably, cannabis is known to cause psychoactive side effects such as impaired memory, paranoia, anxiety, and euphoria, and can also result in tiredness, sleepiness, dry mouth, and other effects.
Having said that, early human studies of cannabis for treating cancer and its symptoms have not reported significant adverse effects. Although more clinical studies are needed, on the whole, cannabis is considered to have a good safety profile with minor and passing side effects.
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