CBD vs THC for Cancer: What Does the Latest Research Say?

Christine Colbert October 31, 2018 2 comments

CBD vs THC? Which holds the most promise for cancer treatment?

Dip a toe into the current online literature surrounding the potential of cannabinoid treatment for cancer, and you’ll find out quickly that cannabis enthusiasts the world over don’t agree when it comes to CBD vs THC for cancer. Scientific research is  progressing. There may indeed be potential promise for cannabinoid therapy as cancer treatment. And early studies suggest that cannabis could potentially kill cancer cells.

But some proponents swear that only THC can cause cancer cell apoptosis. Yet others focus exclusively on CBD, due to its non-psychoactive nature. Is one cannabinoid better than another? And which one is showing the most promise for anti-cancer treatment?

THC for Cancer

Ongoing research into the endocannabinoid system (ECS) is finding that it may have a major role to play in the development and treatment of cancer. The ECS is directly involved in the process of cell apoptosis, which is the mechanism of cell death. In a body diagnosed with cancer, it’s possible the ECS is not directing apoptosis properly, and allowing abnormal cells to multiply.

Scientists are discovering that THC has an ability to bind to endocannabinoid receptors, and that it may instigate cancer cell apoptosis. And through THC’s ability to bind to cannabinoid receptors, it’s possible that it could help induce anti-cancer responses in the body.

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Through binding with the CB1 and CB2 receptors, studies are showing that THC could potentially kill cancer cells. Furthermore, by initiating the production of ceramide, scientists are finding that THC might be able to induce cancer cell apoptosis while leaving healthy cells alone.

cbd vs thc for cancer represented by multicultural biologists in white coats and medical masks talking in lab

What About CBD vs THC For Cancer Apoptosis?

A study in Current Oncology (2016) delved into cannabinoids as cancer-fighting agents.[1]Velasco, G, et al. Anticancer Mechanisms of Cannabinoids. Current Oncology (Toronto, Ont.), Multimed Inc., Mar. 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4791144/ They noted the possibility that THC might leave healthy cells unaffected while laying waste to cancerous cells. This is especially encouraging, as many current cancer treatments designed to induce apoptosis do so among cancer and healthy cells alike.

Another study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (2019) looked at how THC might interact with CB2 receptors in HER2+ breast cancer. They discovered that THC was able to activate an anti-tumor response by disrupting HER2-CB2R heterodimers.[2]Blasco-Benito, Sandra, et al. Therapeutic Targeting of HER2-CB2R Heteromers in HER2-Positive Breast Cancer. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, National … Continue reading

THC has also shown promise in triggering apoptosis in leukemia cells. This study published in FEBS Letters (2005) concluded that THC may have the ability to activate a molecular mechanism called p38 mitogen‐activated protein kinases (MAPK). By doing so, it could potentially induce apoptosis in this specific kind of cancer. [3]Herrera, Blanca, et al. p38 MAPK Is Involved in CB2 Receptor-Induced Apoptosis of Human Leukaemia Cells. FEBS Letters, No Longer Published by Elsevier, 25 Aug. 2005, … Continue reading

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However, it must be noted that this kind of activity is not always beneficial for every kind of cancer. Activation of p38 MAPK may produce a negative effect in HPV-related head and neck cancer. In this case, cannabis aids the cancer itself. This is why more study is needed to fully assess this effect in different types of cancers in the human body.

CBD for Cancer

So, what about CBD? Now that we know not all cancers respond to THC the same way, is CBD more effective in treating some types of this disease? A study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology (2005) found that CBD could prevent the migration of glioma cells. This kind of discovery is impactful, since glioma cancer is among the most deadly. These types of tumors spread rapidly, and can be particularly devastating.[4]Vaccani, Angelo; Massi. Cannabidiol Inhibits Human Glioma Cell Migration through a Cannabinoid Receptor Independent Mechanism, British Journal of Pharmacology. DeepDyve, Wiley Subscription Services, … Continue reading

By preventing the production of metalloproteniases (MMPs), CBD could inhibit glioma tumors from developing blood vessels and spreading destructive cancer cells. Basically, by turning off MMP production, CBD removes the mechanism by which cancer cells invade the body.

Research into CBD for cancer has also found that it could be helpful in treating breast cancer. A study published in Molecular Cancer Therapeutics (2007) showed how CBD might have the ability to turn off the pro-metastatic Id-1 gene in breast cancer. By doing so, it could potentially slow the spread of this specific kind of cancer. Multiple studies have also shown that CBD could also make an impact in fighting prostate cancer.[5]McAllister, Sean D., et al. [PDF] Cannabidiol as a Novel Inhibitor of Id-1 Gene Expression in Aggressive Breast Cancer Cells: Semantic Scholar. Undefined, 1 Jan. 1970, … Continue reading

cbd vs thc for cancer represented by doctor and patient meeting in sunlit room

CBD vs THC for Cancer: Which Cannabinoid is Most Effective?

Right now, there isn’t enough research to say definitively if THC or CBD is more effective in fighting cancer. While cannabis enthusiasts might argue for one cannabinoid over another, there are others that support the combination of both for the purpose of fighting cancer.

However, stigma and regulations may push CBD further ahead when it comes to research. Thanks to the legalization of hemp in the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill, CBD is becoming easier to obtain. And patients may be more receptive to a cannabinoid that doesn’t cause the consumer to experience a psychoactive high.

That “high” caused by THC is what initially gave cannabis its Schedule 1 illicit drug status in the United States. And THC’s psychoactive nature has proved to be a formidable deterrent for in-depth study. But as scientists continue to research and identify the hundreds of compounds that exist within the cannabis plant, they are finding that the answer is not so clear cut. Terpenes and flavonoids might also have a role to play in anti-cancer treatment.

The future of cannabis research is sure to show us more about these compounds and their effect in fighting diseases like cancer. Human trials are necessary to discover how these compounds interact in the body of an actual cancer patient, as well as further discovery into how cannabinoids work together to affect the endocannabinoid system.



  1. Judy loew

    Is it cannabis CBD or hemp ?