How is Cannabis Killing Cancer Cells?

Jessica McKeil September 29, 2020 0 comments

Research is now showing that CBD in cannabis may operate just as effectively as THC at killing cancer cells.

For decades, scientists have found evidence in Petri dishes and laboratories about the anti-cancer benefits of cannabinoids. That evidence hasn’t made it far in clinical and controlled research trials. Yet. But, patients out in the real world have taken the information and run with it. As a result, with the rise in patient use, and the growing preliminary evidence, the potential of cannabis for killing cancer cells has slowly been getting more traction within established cancer research centers.

A new review by a team of Australian researchers, sponsored by Australian Natural Therapeutics Group (ANTG) and Hunter Medical Research Institute (HMRI), digs into what we know thus far. “Can Hemp Help? Low-THC Cannabis and Non-THC Cannabinoids for the Treatment of Cancer” published in the international journal Cancers is a much-needed examination of what we know and what we need to figure out to push this cannabis for cancer idea from the fringe into reality. [1]Afrin, F., Chi, M., Eamens, A. L., Duchatel, R. J., Douglas, A. M., Schneider, J., . . . Dun, M. D. (2020). Can Hemp Help? Low-THC Cannabis and Non-THC Cannabinoids for the Treatment of Cancer. … Continue reading

Why Low-THC Cannabinoids for the Treatment of Cancer?

While there is ongoing interest in THC’s anti-cancer benefits, researchers have started exploring other non-THC cannabinoids, like CBD and CBN. Not only is CBD much more accessible to study (via legalized hemp), it’s also non intoxicating and, therefore, well-tolerated by all demographics. Even in higher doses, which would be expected for patients with cancer, there are only a few reports of mild side effects, such as diarrhea and appetite changes.

As Dr. Matt Dunn, one of the researchers on the Australian team, told a University of Newcastle press release, “There are trials around the world testing cannabis formulations containing THC as a cancer treatment, but if you’re on that therapy your quality of life is impacted.”

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THC may provide symptom relief, but as Dr. Dun says, “You can’t drive, for example, and clinicians are justifiably reluctant to prescribe a child something that could cause hallucinations or other side-effects.”

Dunn’s team has turned their sights on CBD. As Dunn explained, “The CBD variety looks to have greater efficacy, low toxicity and fewer side-effects, which potentially makes it an ideal complementary therapy to combine with other anti-cancer compounds.”

cannabis killing cancer cells under study by scientist in lab

What Low-THC Cannabis-Based Therapies May do for Cancer Patients

Dunn and the team discovered a wealth of information about the anti-cancer potential of CBD. Even low-THC varieties of cannabis are killing cancer cells in preliminary research. In the laboratory, at the very least, cannabinoids like CBD inhibit tumor growth and metastasis. It also induces apoptosis (cancer-cell suicide) for certain cancers.

While the mechanism of action isn’t fully understood, most scientists feel it has something to do with the activation of the CB1 and CB2 endocannabinoid receptors. This means not all cancers are targets for cannabinoids, because not all cancers seem to impact the expression or abundance of both cannabinoid receptors. So far, the following cancer cell lines are impacted through treatment with cannabinoids: astrocytoma, meningioma, non-small-cell lung carcinoma, lymphoma, as well as skin, prostate, breast, and colon cancers.

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One of the most interesting aspects is how CBD-based treatments target cancer cells, not normal healthy cells. The current alternatives, highly-toxic chemotherapies, target both cancerous and healthy cells. It’s part of the reason why chemotherapies are nearly as damaging as cancer itself. Cannabinoid-based therapy would theoretically protect the body’s healthy cells and only promote apoptosis among cancerous ones.

Another theory about the potential of CBD-rich cannabis for killing cancer cells is its impact on inflammation. As per Dr. Dunn’s article, “Up to 20% of cancer associated deaths worldwide are related to cancer-induced inflammation.” Cancer promotes inflammation, which then prompts cancer cell development.

Right alongside the proven anti-inflammatory impacts of THC, CBD is also an established anti-inflammatory. As per Dunn and the scientific team behind the Cancers review, CBD is an exciting novel therapy for inflammation. This is based on its ability to inhibit the release of cytokines (inflammatory cells), promote wound healing, and previous studies showing protections from intestinal inflammation.

cannabis killing cancer cells under study in laboratory

The Next Steps in Research on CBD-Rich Cannabis for Cancer

Beyond the need for trials working with real people and real cancers, what else do we need? For starters, nobody yet understands how cannabis protects normal cells and kills cancer cells. This is one of the fascinating aspects of cannabis for killing cancer cells, yet poorly understood. Secondly, as the article explains, there is a fierce debate between pure-CBD isolates and CBD-full spectrum extracts within medicine. Which substance is more effective for targeting cancer cells? Does the full spectrum contain an entourage of effects beyond those of isolates?

This shouldn’t come as a surprise for any medical cannabis research. But, more study is necessary into CBD-rich cannabis for cancer. Research on THC’s anti-cancer properties is slowly getting into clinical trials, but this is not the case with CBD-rich products. As the 2020 Cancers paper concludes, “a comprehensive and clear picture of the mechanisms driving the anti-cancer properties of low-THC cannabis, and of non-THC cannabinoids, remains a work in progress.”


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Jessica McKeil

Jessica McKeil is a freelance writer focused on the medical marijuana industry, from production methods to medicinal applications. She is lucky enough to live in beautiful British Columbia, Canada where the cannabis industry is exploding. When not writing, she spends much of her time exploring in the coastal forests.

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