Is Cannabis Going to be a Future Colorectal Cancer Treatment?

Philip Ghezelbash July 12, 2019 0 comments

Colorectal cancer treatment can be physically devastating to patients, and this why these early cannabinoid results are exciting.

Colorectal cancer (CRC) is the third most fatal cancer in America. There are an estimated 97,220 new cases of CRC, and over 50,000 deaths per year. And yet, it experiences far less mainstream support and public fundraising. Despite our current knowledge about the pathways that induce colorectal cancer, previous attempts to target this pathway and stop cancer cell growth have been unsuccessful. Interestingly, however, it seems that cannabis may provide some hope for the future of CRC treatment.

CRC typically occurs due to mutations in genes in the Wnt/β-catenin pathway. These mutations lead to uncontrolled activation of the pathway, which can then lead to an uncontrolled proliferation of cancer cells. Nearly all colorectal tumors contain the gene mutations in the Wnt/β-catenin pathway.

Is Cannabis a Viable Cancer Treatment for CRC?

As cannabis legalization lifts the ban on research, more studies are now examining the therapeutic effects the plant may have on cancer. Currently, cancer patients primarily take cannabis to alleviate cancer pain and reduce unpleasant side effects from conventional treatments. However, there is some emerging research showing that one of cannabis’ active compounds (cannabinoids) may decrease or prevent tumor growth.


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Cannabinoids interact with cannabinoid receptors, such a the G-protein coupled receptors CB1 and CB2. Interestingly, increased cannabinoid receptor expression has been reported in cases of colorectal cancer. What this increase could suggest is that the endocannabinoid system is trying to help the body regulate the proliferation of cancer cells. 

One study found that cannabinoid receptors may act together with tumor necrosis factor receptor superfamily (TRFNS) members to induce cell death. This research also suggests that certain cannabinoids have been shown to sensitize cancer cells to synergistic tumor cell death. Other studies have also demonstrated potential anticancer activity in preclinical in vitro and in vivo experiments. 

Study Finds Success with Cannabinoids

Considering the possibility that cannabinoids could fight cancer, researchers from Penn State sought to see just how effective cannabinoids may be at halting colon cancer cell growth. This specific study looked at different synthetic cannabinoids. Researchers screened all available synthetic cannabinoids to see how they affected seven different types of human colon cancer cells. Synthetic analogues provide consistency for early research in order to establish reproducible results.

Researchers treated the cancer cells with various cannabinoids for 48-hours. They then measured cell viability with MTS assay. 

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The researchers found 10 of the synthetic cannabinoids were effective at reducing the “health” of all seven colorectal cancer cell types. This suggests the potential for cannabinoid therapy on CRC.  

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Other Research Backs up Potential Merits of Cannabinoid Therapy

Past research has shown THC’s efficacy at inducing cell death in colorectal cancer cells. In a 2007 study published in Cancer Cell Biology, researchers concluded that the “inhibition of ERK and AKT activity, by THC, was accompanied by activation of the proapoptotic BCL‐2 family member BAD.” Furthermore “reduction of BAD protein expression by RNA interference rescued colorectal cancer cells from THC‐induced apoptosis.”

What this suggests is that CB1 receptors and BAD (a protein which initiates cell death) play an important role in regulating the apoptosis (death) of colorectal cancer cells. 

Another study found that cyclooxygenase 2 (COX-2), could help slow down colorectal cancer cell growth. COX-2 is an enzyme responsible for the metabolism of several cannabinoids. In this study, researchers found that cannabinoids targeted colorectal cancer cells for cell death and inhibition of growth when these CRC cells expressed high levels of COX-2.  

What Comes Next for Colorectal Cancer Treatment?

With CRC annually affecting nearly 100,00 people in America alone, we urgently need to develop new treatments. 

Scientists may have found a possible connection between cannabinoids and a reduction in cell growth. They found ten lab-created cannabinoids that reduced colorectal cancer cell viability and thus possibly slow cancer growth.

We need more research to explain the exact mechanisms behind how cannabinoids affect colorectal cancer cells. Researchers believe inhibition of cell division and activation of pro-apoptotic proteins may play a key role. 

So, while the science is not entirely understood, this research does offer hope for the role that cannabinoids may play in colorectal cancer treatment. Here’s hoping for a brighter future.

Author avatar

Philip Ghezelbash
Philip Ghezelbash is an ex-personal trainer with a science background who currently operates New Zealand's only health specialized writing studio. He is passionate about presenting complex science in an easy to digest manner and is a firm believer that cannabis has substantial potential to be used as a medicine for degenerative disease.

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