Those who are familiar with marijuana know there are a variety of medical applications, from treating nausea to helping to alleviate the symptoms of gastrointestinal disorders such as Crohn's Disease. Today, however, scientists are finding that medical marijuana, when used in conjunction with other forms of cancer treatment, is capable of shrinking some of the most aggressive forms of brain cancer known to science. Here's what you need to know:
Cannabis as a Treatment for Glioma
Glioma is a form of cancer that develops in the supportive tissue of the human brain. This tissue is designed to enhance neuron function and when a tumor begins to grow within it, the affected person experiences nausea, headaches, vision changes, altered behavior and personality changes. Patients affected by glioma are subject to a bleak 5 percent survival rate over three years.
Until now, the treatment options for glioma have been limited to surgery and chemotherapy in the event of high-grade tumors. Today, however, this may be changing. According to a 2014 study conducted by oncologist Wai Lu at St. George's University of London, cannabinoids like THC and CBD are highly efficient at destroying glioma cells. During a clinical study, Lu found that CBD and THC alone were capable of killing roughly half of the glioma cells present in affected mice. When these cannabinoids were used in conjunction with radiotherapy, however, the treatment caused the tumors in several of the mice to stop growing entirely.
Additionally, Lu found that when THC and CBD were used together to treat tumors, researchers could use less of each compound and still achieve the same effects. This is important because THC is psychoactive and can cause unwanted psychoactive side effects for people receiving treatment. Fortunately, when combined with CBD, THC can be used in smaller doses and patients receiving treatment can reap the medical benefits of the compound without any of the "high" feelings traditionally associated with it.
How Cannabis Works to Treat Brain Cancer
While the results of Lu's study are exciting, researchers are still working to figure out how, exactly, THC and CBD are producing these effects. According to Lu, the answer may be that the cannabinoids are preparing neural pathways for radiotherapy. "We think that the cannabinoids are hitting a number of cell signaling pathways, which primes them to the effects of irradiation," Lu says. Once the cells have been primed, the ability of a tumor cell to rebuild itself is damaged and the tumor cells die as a result. The outstanding thing about this treatment, however, is that while THC and CBD have been shown to kill glioma cells, they don't produce any negative effects in the healthy cell tissue surrounding the glial cells. In fact, cannabinoids may even [protect these cells](http://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam/hp/cannabis-pdq# cit/section_4.3) from damage.
While the results of Lu's study are particularly exciting given the aggressive and often-fatal nature of glioma, this is not the first evidence researchers have of cannabis being used to treat different forms of cancer. Cannabis contains upward of 85 different cannabinoids, and previous studies have shown that these cannabinoids are capable of killing various types of cancer cells. This research has given scientists a place to start when evaluating the use of CBD and THC for cancer treatment.
Marijuana and Cancer Prevention
In addition to the recent findings that cannabinoids may be an effective treatment for glioma, researchers have discovered over the years that marijuana may also have powerful anti-tumor effects, which could stop cancer from ever forming in the first place. While the research isn't new, it paved the way for further evaluations of the connection between cannabis and cancer. In one 1996 study, researchers found that lab mice given doses of THC over a two-year period experienced a decrease in the rate of certain cancers and benign tumors in areas such as the pancreas, uterus, testes and mammary tissue.
More recent research has shed some light on how cannabis produces these effects. According to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry, THC acts on cannabinoid cell receptors to inhibit the interactions between them, thus decreasing the risk that cancer will form or interrupting cancer that is already growing. Further research has shown that THC is capable of decreasing the rate of lung cancer cell growth by 50 percent as well as preventing pre-existing cancer from metastasizing throughout the body. Studies have also shown that cannabis is capable of killing brain cancer cells. The anti-cancer benefits of cannabis are extensive and clearly noted, and, when used correctly, can help providers offer powerful cancer treatment without the dangerous and uncomfortable side-effects present in other treatment options.
Moving Forward: The Future of Marijuana and Glioma
Lu's 2014 study was groundbreaking in the world of glioma research and, while further research is needed to put his findings into action on a large scale, it's clear that cannabis may be more powerful than researchers previously thought when it comes to treating aggressive forms of cancer. In addition to offering relief from many of the symptoms associated with cancer and cancer treatment (such as nausea, vomiting, pain and decreases in appetite), cannabis also boasts an extensive list of anti-tumor and cancer-treating properties. These properties present huge opportunities for treatment to cancer patients and their families, and have the potential to alter the face of cancer treatment forever.