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Cannabis and Cancer – Bridging the Gap Through Science (Part 1, Viability)

Societal understanding and conceptualization of what cancer is and what cancer does within the human body has largely been biased by the connotation of the name cancer itself. Many individuals hear the word cancer and immediately think of the horrible consequences of the affliction, but rarely does the question; “What is cancer?”, get raised or answered. According to the National Cancer Institute, at the National Institutes of Health, cancer is a collection of related diseases whose emergence is initiated by the proliferation (or uncontrolled division) of cells without the capacity to stop (Cancer 2015).

Cancer cells originate from mutations in regular cells and these mutations are occurring all the time during our regular lives. The issue of cancer arises when the cells lose the capacity to recognize inhibitory signals from surrounding cells and the resulting cancer cell begins to divide and grow uncontrollably (Cancer 2015). Cancer is a failure of cells to undergo controlled cell division (a natural process involved with wound healing and the replacement of cells on a daily basis).

Research and investigation into novel treatments for cancer have evolved significantly in recent years to consider many different chemicals that originate from plant derived toxins. An example of this is the drug Taxol (the registered trademark named for the drug) or Paclitaxel which, during its original pre-clinical trials, “showed effectiveness against mammary tumours and ovarian cancer” (National Cancer Institute n.d.). Taxol is one of the most recognizable and well-known naturally-sourced plant molecules used in the formulation of a cancer treatment. The origins of paclitaxel begin in the bark of the Pacific yew tree which Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada refer to as a a substance that “can be quite poisonous to humans and livestock” and they even recommend that “no one should attempt self-medication” (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 2013).

Present costs for Taxol are not inexpensive either. The cost of treatment for one patient is $10,000.00 per patient per cycle and costs can increase to $100,000.00 following a ten-cycle treatment period. The costs of treating cancer with this treatment in mind is very expensive.

These enormous associated costs, such as mentioned above, raise viable questions about whether alternative medicines should be sought for the treatment of cancer and it’s symptoms. One of these questions is whether natural plant-derived chemical treatments should be investigated further, and to what extent? This pursuit raises question about an option that has metaphorically been kept behind bars for decades. The United States of America presently classifies marijuana as a Schedule I drug which asserts that it has no present medical benefits and even aggregates the plant with compounds such as heroin, ecstasy and LSD. Schedule I describes the drugs within its classification as containing the “most dangerous of all the drug schedules with potentially severe psychological or physical dependence” (DEA n.d., A).

The investigation of natural plant products capable of treating symptoms of cancer and treating the cancer cells themselves are restricted by the assertion that, as a schedule I drug, marijuana is somehow more dangerous than Taxol – a product capable of killing an individual due to the mitotic spindle poison compounds (capable of disrupting cell division) (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, 2013).

Marijuana is described by many American laws, and according to the DEA as possessing no “accepted medical use in treatment,” and for possessing a “lack of accepted safety for use of the drug or other substance under medical supervision” (DEA n.d., B). This assertion is claimed by the DEA, but it should be noted that the the United States of America, as represented by the Department of Health and Human Services presently holds the Patent – “US 6630507 B1 – Cannabinoids as antioxidants and neuroprotectants” which is suggestive that there is some implication of a medical benefit despite the DEA’s claims of no accepted medical use in treatment (DEA n.d.; B Hampson et al., 2003). The allowance of such a patent questions whether other possible treatments for various disease states may exist – considering that present cancer treatments use many other naturally-derived plant models for the derivation of treatments. There seems to be a bias on who is allowed to make such investigations, but the existence of clinical trials involving marijuana are not completely absent from records in the United States and this piece of evidence encourages all of our readers to draw their attention to some of the preliminary evidence derived at this link (a summary of some findings will follow): http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/cam/cannabis/healthprofessional/page5 (Cancer 2014).

Thorough investigation of the evidence on this website will require a multi-staged approach, and because of this I plan to begin an episodic investigation into each of the various clinical investigations mentioned, in order to provide an overview for both our readers, and for the scientific community who may not have otherwise been made aware that such trials have even been conducted (or may not have heard of the results and early findings). The next paragraphs will serve to emphasize some of the integral pieces of evidence raised by clinical trials. In future articles, more emphasis will be placed on the trials that investigated specific treatment protocols and related findings.

First, lets take a look at the investigated areas (areas we will focus upon in future articles). As mentioned on the National Cancer Institute Website; antiemetic (anti-nausea), appetite stimulation, analgesia (pain-relief), and lastly, anxiety and sleep. These are some of the permitted studies that examine the effectiveness of cannabis and cannabinoids, but it should be recognized that the capacity to engage in clinical trials for investigation of the viability for cannabis and cannabinoids is extremely limiting and restricted due to DEA enforcement.

For the focus of this article we will raise a few of the observations of the clinical trial with respect to antiemetic properties of strictly cannabis (omitting results from cannabinoids) (Cancer 2014). According the the National Cancer Institute’s investigation, the efficacy of  inhaled marijuana was investigated during three separate trials, in patients who experienced chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting (Cancer 2014). In two of the three trials, the use of inhaled cannabis was made available to the patient after the synthetic compound dronabinol (a synthetically derived THC compound recognizable by the brand name Marinol) failed to relieve the symptoms (nausea and vomiting) (Cancer 2014).

In the first trial, patients receiving the treatments cyclophosphamide or doxorubicin were not shown to exhibit statistically significant relief of symptoms (Cancer 2014). In the second trial, a positive result was shown and a statistically superior result was observed in the reduction of these negative chemotherapeutic effects. (Cancer 2014). These results were recorded for patients receiving high-dose methotrexate (Cancer 2014). These results are suggestive that further investigation should be strongly encouraged, since a statistically significant result was observed. Lastly, in the third trial a more complex trial was initiated that involved a “randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over trial involving 20 adults in which both inhaled marijuana while oral THC levels were evaluated.” Although one quarter of the patients reported a favorable reduction of symptoms, there was no report compiled, and the findings were never published (Cancer 2014). Among these three trials (each of which involved patients receiving differing chemotherapy treatments), there was statistical significance observed in 33% of trials. Unfinished, unpublished results in 33%. And lastly, no antiemetic effect in 33%.

The results of these compiled investigations are not enough to determine whether any true antiemetic properties exist for cannabis, but the prospect does exist considering that one of these two studies have conclusive results which suggest statistically significant relief of nausea and vomiting symptoms (Cancer 2014). Based upon these findings, the evidence from these two completed trials should serve as a template for future investigation as far as relief of symptoms in patients who experienced chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. We at MMJ.Today encourage all our readers to keep an eye out for our next investigative focus on the human clinical trials conducted using cannabis and cannabinoids in relation to cancer treatments and relief of symptoms. It is our goal to investigate the scientific prospects in a budding industry, with the aspiration that we may excite the investigation of prospective and novel techniques in treating symptoms of both cancer, as well as many other disease states.

Alexander Watchurst

References:

  • Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. (2013). Taxus brevifolia Nutt. (Pacific Yew). Accessed on April 2nd, 2015. Retrieved from http://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/science-and-innovation/science-publications-      and-resources/resources/canadian-medicinal-crops/medicinal-crops/taxus-brevifolia-nutt-           pacific-yew/?id=1301435640373
  • Cancer. (2015). What is cancer?National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health.    Accessed on April 2nd, 2015. Retrieved from http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/what-is-cancer
  • Cancer. (2014). Cannabis and cannabinoids: human clinical studies. National Cancer Institute and the      National Institutes of Health. Accessed on April 2nd, 2015. Retrieved from             http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/pdq/cam/cannabis/healthprofessional/page5
  • DEA. (n.d.). A. Drug schedules. U.S. Drug Enforcement Adminitration and United States Department    of Justice. Accessed on April 2nd, 2015. Retrieved from http://www.dea.gov/druginfo/ds.shtml
  • DEA. (n.d.). B. Drug fact sheet: marijuana. Drug Enforcement Administration. Accessed on April 2nd,     2015. Retrieved from http://www.dea.gov/druginfo/drug_data_sheets/Marijuana.pdf
  • Hampson AJ, Axelrod J, Grimaldi M. (2003). Cannabinoids as Antioxidants and Neuroprotectants.          Patent No. US 6,630,507 B1. Date: 10/7/2003. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
  • National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). Success story: taxol (NSC 125973). National Cancer Institute.   Developmental Therapeutics Program. Accessed on April 2nd, 2015. Retrieved from             http://dtp.nci.nih.gov/timeline/flash/success_stories/S2_taxol.htm

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