Medical marijuana and the treatment of brain cancer


Over 700,000 people in the US are estimated to live with a brain tumor or other type of cancer of the central nervous system. Every year, roughly 17,000 people in the US, along with many more around the world, are expected to lose their battle with a brain tumor.

Brain tumors do not discriminate and can affect people of all ages, genders, and races. The treatments of brain cancer are generally limited, making the search for new alternative therapies evermore important.

Luckily, the search for these alternatives seems to making progress; research now suggests that cannabinoids like THC and CBD may help manage the growth and spread of certain kinds of brain tumors, including glioblastomas and astrocytomas.

UNDERSTANDING BRAIN CANCER

Brain cancer refers to the formation of tumors in the brain. These tumors consist of growths of abnormal cells which, once big enough, can impair proper brain function.

Brain tumors can either be primary, meaning they begin to form in the brain and rarely spread to other parts of the body, or secondary, meaning they are caused by cancers originating from other parts of the body.

TYPES OF BRAIN TUMORS

Brain tumors are usually divided into 2 groups; benign and malignant. Benign tumors are non-cancerous, usually grow slowly and rarely spread into other parts of the brain.

Malignant tumors, on the other hand, can grow aggressively and spread into other areas of the brain and/or body (commonly the spinal cord).

There are over 120 types of brain tumors. Some common types of malignant brain tumors include:

  • Astrocytomas
  • Oligodendrogliomas
  • Glioblastomas
  • Mixed gliomas

Brain tumors can form in a variety of different cell types and affect various areas of the brain and spinal cord. The symptoms they produce depend on where exactly the tumor forms, its size, how quickly it grows, and the age of the patient.

CANNABIS AND BRAIN CANCER: WHAT DOES THE SCIENCE SAY?

There is a growing body of research showing that certain cannabinoids can have positive effects on brain tumors as well as other types of cancers. Studies show they may do this in many different ways.

First of all, cannabinoids may actually kill of cancer cells. In an article published in Nature Reviews Cancer, for example, Manuel Guzman, Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Complutense University in Madrid, Spain, shows that cannabinoids may induce apoptosis (a type of programmed cell death which happens naturally in multicellular organisms) in glioma cells. Guzman also states that mice and rat-based studies suggest that cannabinoids like THC can also cause regression of glioma cells all the while protecting regular glial cells.

Another study published by Guzman and a team of researchers from Complutense University show that cannabinoids can inhibit the Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor (VEGF) pathway. This pathway plays an important role in a tumor's ability to produce new blood vessels in order to feed itself with oxygen and other nutrients while also cleansing itself of waste products.

But THC isn’t the only cannabinoid that may help in managing the growth or spread of brain cancer cells. In 2013, researchers from the Department of Experimental Medicine at the University of Camerino, Italy, found that CBD may also help slow the growth of brain tumors.

The findings of this research were published in the Journal of Carcinogenesis and suggested that cannabidiol (or CBD) was able to help stop the formation of new cells in multiform glioblastoma cells as well as lower their resistance to specific chemotherapeutic agents like carmustine.

The study suggested that CBD triggered a particular receptor which ultimately making glioma cells more sensitive to chemotherapy treatment.

Another study, published in 2010 in the journal of Molecular Cancer Therapeutics showed that CBD enhanced the inhibitory effects of THC on the growth of new glioma cells and their survival.

CANCER AND CANNABIS: THE BIG PICTURE

It is important to note that there is still a lack of clinical studies to confirm whether cannabinoids like THC and CBD can be effective in managing brain tumors. However, the evidence mentioned above is promising.

It is also important to realise that these studies coincide with a number of other studies exploring the effects of cannabinoids on cancers outside of the brain. Again, there still isn’t enough evidence here to confirm that cannabinoids can slow tumor growth or even reverse it, but these are definitely some strong foundations to build future research off.