Immunotherapy and cannabis may be a dangerous mix, as cannabis’ immune-suppressant qualities could be problematic.
Cannabis research is beginning to scratch the surface regarding the impact cannabinoids can make on the human body’s immune system. By interacting with the endocannabinoid system (ECS), cannabinoids like THC and CBD can influence signaling among cannabinoid receptors located throughout the body. Also present in the immune system, these receptors can induce an anti-inflammatory and immune suppressing response.
While cannabis’ immune-suppressing qualities might make it ideal for treating autoimmune diseases such as Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and Crohn’s disease, these qualities may spell danger for patients undergoing immunotherapy. More research is needed, but thus far, scientists have been able to glean some insight into immunotherapy and cannabis.
How Immunotherapy and the Immune System Works
A certain kind of biological balance is required in order for our bodies to maintain proper functioning of the immune system. This involves regulation of cell activity and inflammation that is orchestrated in part by the ECS. In a healthy, well-functioning system, abnormal cells are killed off before they can wreak havoc on the body. The ECS dictates cell apoptosis, or cell death, and scientists are finding that cannabinoid therapy can help trigger this process.
When cancer cells grow in the body, they form into tumors and spread by essentially inhibiting the proper functioning of immune cells. The immune system is no longer functioning properly, and cancerous cells are allowed to multiply with little resistance. In order to fight this destructive process, doctors employ the use of chemotherapy and radiation treatments that kill cancer cells. However, these treatments can, and often do, wipe out healthy cells as well as unhealthy.
Immunotherapy has emerged as an effective treatment for some patients, as it directly targets the immune system. By stimulating immune cells like cytokines, retraining T-cells, and even introducing man-made versions of immune system proteins, doctors have been able to boost the immune system enought to fight cancer.
And with recent discoveries into cannabis’ ability to stimulate cancer cell death, cannabinoid therapy has now become a growing interest in the scientific community. But does its immune-suppressing qualities make it a poor choice for cancer patients undergoing immunotherapy?
Immunotherapy and Cannabis
Research is showing that cannabis might not just have the ability to suppress the immune system, but it could potentially modulate it. A review study published in Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research (2019) made some discoveries about CBD that suggested possible modulation. They found that CBD directly suppresses T-cells and microglial cells, down-regulating pro-inflammatory pathways, while also up-regulating anti-inflammatory pathways. James M. Nichols and Barbara L.F. Kaplan, et al. Immune Responses Regulated by Cannabidiol. Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., Publishers, 27 Feb. 2020, … Continue reading
These results provide more reasons to study this subject further. But, we cannot regard them as entirely conclusive. This review summarized the findings of in vitro and in vivo studies, leaving questions as to whether or not these kinds of results could be replicated in the human body.
Another 2019 study attempted to learn more through observation of human patients with advanced malignancies. Published in Oncologist (2019), researchers observed 140 patients with melanoma, non-small cell lung cancer, and renal clear cell carcinoma. They concluded that the immunotherapy treatment response rate decreased in patients who had consumed cannabis.
Their response rate was fifty percent less than those taking immunotherapy alone.Taha T;Meiri D;Talhamy S;Wollner M;Peer A;Bar-Sela G; Cannabis Impacts Tumor Response Rate to Nivolumab in Patients With Advanced Malignancies. The Oncologist, U.S. National Library of Medicine, … Continue reading However, the authors also noted that cannabis consumption did not appear to affect the overall survival and progression-free survival of the observed patients.
While this study involved only a small group of subjects, it does point toward the need for more research, as well as caution for patients undergoing immunotherapy.
Cannabis and Cancer
Clinical research into the effectiveness of cannabis on treating cancer is growing, with more funding devoted to the subject every year. What are some of the exciting discoveries? For one, scientists have found that not all cancers respond to cannabinoid therapy in the same way. What might be effective treatment for one type of cancer, may not be for others.
Cannabinoid therapy might also help regulate the functioning of an immune system gone haywire due to diseases such as Crohn’s and MS. We can’t conclusively say whether or not it is safe for patients undergoing immunotherapy. We don’t know enough about cannabis’ effect on the immune system.
More human clinical trials are necessary. Soon we’ll know enough about the mechanics behind immune system changes resulting from cannabinoid treatment. That way, scientists can better predict what effect cannabis may have on a body with a malfunctioning immune system. The existing research tells us that the ECS regulates immune system functioning, and may respond to cannabinoid therapy. As science begins to understand the hundreds of compounds present in the cannabis plant, we can only expect more light to be shed on the subject.