Can Cannabis Help Pancreatic Cancer?
Sep 25, 2019
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.
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.
The Cannigma content is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always consult with an experienced medical professional with a background in cannabis before beginning treatment.
About Pancreatic Cancer
Pancreatic cancer is a particular type of cancer that begins in the tissues of the pancreas. The pancreas is located behind the stomach, in front of the spine, allowing plenty of space for tumors to grow unheeded.
For most people with pancreatic cancer, the cancer is only diagnosed once it has progressed to an advanced stage that is difficult to treat successfully. Pancreatic cancer spreads quickly to other organs and rapidly becomes malignant.
Each year, around 460,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer are diagnosed each year, with approximately 10,000 new cases in the UK. Globally, pancreatic cancer is slightly more common among men than among women, and is most prevalent in central and eastern Europe.
Pancreatic cancer has one of the worst outlooks for different cancer types. Although it’s the 11th most common cancer in men and the 12th most common cancer for women worldwide, it is the seventh-leading cause of cancer-related deaths. In the UK, pancreatic cancer represents 3% of all cancer types, but causes 6% of all cancer deaths. Globally, the five-year survival rate is just 9%, and in the UK it’s only 7%. Every year, 95,000 people in Europe die from pancreatic cancer.
Unlike many other cancers, pancreatic cancer may not cause any symptoms until it’s relatively advanced. If cancer grows near the head of the pancreas, it may block a structure called the common bile duct and as a result, the patient may develop jaundice where they have a yellow appearance in their skin and eyes.
However, most pancreatic cancer begins elsewhere in the pancreas, and only causes symptoms once it has spread to the bile duct or crossed to the liver.
The main symptoms of pancreatic cancer are:
- Sudden and unexplained weight loss
- Loss of appetite
- Pain in the abdomen and/or lower back
- New-onset diabetes
- Tiredness and fatigue
- Blood clots
When to see a doctor
Generally, jaundice is the earliest symptom of pancreatic cancer. However, jaundice occurs in many other conditions, most commonly with diseases of the liver. If you do have jaundice, you should consult with a doctor to evaluate the reason it is occurring.
You should also see you doctor if you have unexplained weight loss, tiredness, or pain in your abdomen, although these can also be symptoms of something entirely different.
For 44% of people, pancreatic cancer is only diagnosed at stages III and IV, when they are already showing multiple symptoms and have what’s called “emergency presentation,” namely the cancer has already spread to other parts of the body.
On rare occasions, pancreatic cancer is detected and diagnosed at an earlier stage, generally through a routine cancer screening, or a scan that was carried out for other purposes.
To confirm a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, your doctor will usually carry out the following tests:
- Imaging tests, including CT scans, PET scans, and MRI scans to create a visualization of your pancreas and the organs around it and reveal the presence of tumors.
- Ultrasounds to produce ultrasound pictures of your pancreas and the area around it.
- Biopsy, which means removing a small tissue sample from your pancreas in order to examine it for cancerous cells.
Blood tests, which look for particular proteins called tumor markers that are shed by pancreatic cancer cells, although this test isn’t always reliable.
We don’t know what causes pancreatic cancer. It affects slightly more men than women worldwide, and is slightly more common in people who are very tall.
Scientists have observed certain risk factors that make it more likely that one might develop pancreatic cancer. These include:
- A hereditary, genetic mutation in the cells of the pancreas, revealed by a family history of pancreatic cancer
- A family history of syndromes that can increase your overall risk of cancer, including Lynch syndrome, BRCA2 mutation, and familial atypical mole-malignant melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome
- Chronic inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis)
- Age—most people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer are aged over 65
It’s almost impossible to fully cure pancreatic cancer. On the rare occasions that it’s caught at an early stage, a combination of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy can eliminate cancer and extend healthy life for as long as possible.
Treatment for early-stage pancreatic cancer includes:
If you have early-stage pancreatic cancer, you might be referred for surgery to remove the cancerous sections of your pancreas or the entire organ. This could also involve removing the duodenum (part of the small intestine), the gallbladder, nearby lymph nodes, the spleen, and occasionally neighboring blood vessels. The amount that’s removed depends on the spread and extent of cancer.
Chemotherapy drugs are taken orally or injected into your veins in order to kill cancer cells. Sometimes it’s combined with radiation therapy to make it more effective. If you have advanced pancreatic cancer, you might be given chemotherapy in order to slow down the progression of cancer.
Radiation therapy usually uses X-ray beams to target and destroy cancer cells. Occasionally, proton beams are used instead. Radiation therapy can be administered with or without chemotherapy, and modern radiation is very precise.
When pancreatic cancer is at a late stage, treatment generally focuses on reducing pain and improving your quality of life, rather than a cure. It tends to focus on palliative care.
Palliative care treatments for pancreatic cancer include:
- Traditional pain relief using a customized combination of oral and, later, intravenous painkillers.
- Cannabidiol extract (CBD) is an extract from the cannabis plant that is non-intoxicating and not addictive. CBD helps to reduce nausea, vomiting, and pain in people with pancreatic cancer. It also assists in lowering the stress, anxiety, and fear that comes with living with pancreatic cancer. Some new studies have also shown that CBD can slow down or destroy cancer cells.
- Relaxation techniques—strategies like guided meditation, hypnosis, and deep breathing exercises can help people with pancreatic cancer to relax and to ease their stress, pain, and anxiety.
- Nutritional and herbal supplements like ginger and peppermint tea can help you relax and relieve symptoms like nausea and vomiting.
- Acupuncture can help you relax and encourages the body to release natural painkillers.
- Biofeedback teaches you to control involuntary bodily functions like your breathing, sweating, and heart rate so as to reduce stress and pain.
- Complementary therapies like aromatherapy, art therapy, and music therapy can relieve stress and help you relax.
- Massage therapy can ease the pain of tense muscles, release nerve pain, and help lower stress.
- Mind-body exercises like tai chi and yoga guide you to manage your pain and anxiety.