Medical marijuana and the treatment of leukemia

Leukemia is a specific type of cancer affecting the blood. In 2017, the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society estimates close to 173,000 people to be diagnosed with some kind of blood cancer in the United States alone.

Leukemia is the most common kind of cancer affecting children. The survival rate for leukemia depends on the specific type of cancer; Hodgkin lymphoma survival rates are as high as 89%, while those for myeloma are only about 50%. New research suggests cannabis may offer a new alternative to regular leukemia treatments like chemotherapy.


Leukemia refers to a specific kind of cancer that affects the body’s blood-forming tissue. This includes the bone marrow and lymphatic system. There are many different types of leukemia. Leukemia affects children more than any other kind of cancer.

Leukemia generally affects the production of white blood cells, which are responsible for fighting infection in the body. These cells are created by stem cells in the bone marrow and later enter the bloodstream. Leukemia is caused by the production of abnormal white blood cells. These cells build up in the bone marrow, stopping it from producing more healthy blood cells. Eventually, these abnormal cells enter the bloodstream and spread around the body.

As the bone marrow stops producing healthy blood cells, the blood becomes depleted; the lack of red blood cells means not enough oxygen is carried around the body, the lack of platelets affects the body's ability to repair wounds, and the lack of white blood cells leads to an increased risk of infection.

Leukemia is usually treated with chemotherapy, radiation, and blood transfusions. These therapies can be effective, with the American Cancer Society reporting that up to 2 in 3 patients with acute myeloid leukemia go into remission following treatment. Surgery is not an option, seeing as the cancer cells in leukemia do not form a tumor.

However, the treatments can take a big toll on the body. Chemotherapy, for example, is designed to attack and kill rapidly reproducing cancer cells in the blood. However, it also attacks healthy cells, which can affect a patient's body in various ways, possibly leaving patients unable to produce their own stem cells and requiring a transplant.


Cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant are getting a lot of attention for their medical properties. Compounds like THC and CBD (and many others) have been shown to fight inflammation, tame epileptic seizures, and much more. Research also suggests that these compounds have unique anticancer properties.

There is a number of research examining how cannabinoids specifically affect leukemia cells. Some of this research dates as far back as 1987, when scientists found that cannabinoids like THC inhibited the maturation of cultured leukemia cells. Then, in 2005, a study showed that THC was a potent inducer of apoptosis (or cell death) in leukemia cells, even in low doses. A year later, researchers also showed that CBD had similar effects on human leukemia cells using in vivo.

A new study published in the International Journal of Oncology in May 2017 elaborated on these past findings. The study, conducted by researchers at the Department of Oncology at St George's, University of London, investigated the effect of pairing THC and CBD together with chemotherapy and assessed their anticancer activity.

The results of the study showed that there were a number of ways THC and CBD could be administered together to have improved effects on leukemic cell lines. Moreover, the study results also showed that cannabinoids could also be used in combination with chemotherapy agents in order to increase the sensitivity of the leukemia cells to the chemotherapy drugs. This was especially true when cannabinoids were used after chemotherapy.

This latest study contributes to a growing body of literature that shows that cannabinoids effectively kill cancer cells, at least in a laboratory setting. Most of these studies are based on cell cultures or animals, which unfortunately doesn’t make their results enough to warrant cannabis as an effective treatment or cure for leukemia.

One reason that is making cannabis such an attractive alternative to regular cancer treatment is that it seems to only affect cancer cells while not affecting healthy cells. In a 2009 study published in The Journals Of Clinical Investigation, researchers exploring the effect of cannabinoids on brain cancer cells noted that cannabinoid therapy had no toxic effects on patients.

In order for these findings to advance, they must now be proven on controlled and blinded clinical trials on human patients. Unfortunately, doing this is difficult due to the fact that cannabis remains a controlled substance in most countries around the world. Hopefully as legalization gains momentum across the globe, these barriers will soon fall to make room for more research.

Note: We have taken the utmost care and precaution whilst writing this article. That being said, please take note of the fact that we are not medical professionals of any kind. is strictly a news and information website. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.