Medical marijuana and the treatment of liver cancer
Published Last updated
Liver cancer is a potentially fatal condition characterized by aggressive tumor growth in the liver. The American Cancer Society estimates over 40,000 new cases of liver cancer will be diagnosed in the US alone this year, while over 20,000 patients are expected to lose their battle with the disease.
The 5-year survival rate for liver cancer is roughly 30% if diagnosed early. If feasible, treatment usually involves surgery, localized treatment, or chemo/radiation therapy. Now, new research suggests that cannabis may also help treat liver tumors.
WHAT IS LIVER CANCER?
Liver cancer, also known as hepatic cancer, is a type of cancer that forms inside the liver. There are many different types of liver cancer. The most common, however, is hepatocellular carcinoma, which affects the main type of liver cells (hepatocytes).
The liver is responsible for a wide variety of metabolic processes. It helps convert nutrients from food, stores it, and then supplies it to cells when needed. It also plays a vital role in detoxifying the body of toxic substances and also produces bile to help the body digest fat and other nutrients.
Nutrients, medications, or substances like alcohol enter the liver via the blood, where they are processed, stored, altered, and detoxified. Then, the substances are passed back into the bloodstream for the body to be used or released into the bowel where they can be passed.
Liver cancer is caused by abnormal cell growth inside the liver. These cells eventually form together to create a tumor. As the tumour grows larger it begins to interfere with the proper functioning of the liver. Seeing as the liver is so vital for sustaining life, a tumor can be a potentially life threatening condition.
The most common cause of liver cancer is cirrhosis caused by hepatitis or alcohol consumption. Other factors that increase the risks of liver cancer include hepatitis B or C, diabetes, and other inherited or non alcohol-related liver diseases.
Most patients do not experience any symptoms of liver cancer early on in the disease. By the time symptoms take place and the tumor is discovered, the cancer has usually grown substantially, making the condition harder to manage for both patients and doctors.
Liver cancer is generally treated with surgery to remove the tumor, given it is not too large and that the remaining liver tissue is healthy enough to regenerate effectively over time. Alternatively, patients may also undergo a liver transplant surgery.
If surgery isn’t an option patients may use localized treatment methods which involve administering extreme temperatures, pure alcohol, chemotherapy drugs or radiation beads directly to the tumor. Radiation therapy and certain targeted drugs are also used to inhibit tumor growth and kill cancerous cells in the liver.
MEDICAL MARIJUANA: A NEW ALTERNATIVE?
Medical marijuana and cancer is a topic which is receiving a lot of attention in the medical community. Cannabinoids like THC and CBD have already received a lot of praise from patients and doctors for helping manage treatment side effects like nausea, vomiting, and pain.
However, research shows that these cannabinoids might have a lot more power hidden up their sleeve.
Research on the effects of cannabinoids on cancer dates back to the late 1980s, with some studies showing that THC was able to stop cultured leukemia cells form maturing. Since then, a growing body of research has attempted to capture just how cannabinoids can aid in the treatment of cancer.
New research shows that both THC and CBD, the two most abundant cannabinoids found in medical marijuana, are able to slow the growth or even kill cancer cells grown in lab dishes. Some studies also show that these cannabinoids had similar effects in animal tumors.
Some of the types of cancer studied in these trials include leukemia, breast cancer, and brain tumors. Some studies have also explicitly examined the effects of cannabinoids on liver cancer.
For example, in 1996 researchers from the National Toxicology Program conducted a 2 year trial with mice and lab rats who were administered various doses of THC. The researchers noted a dose-related decrease in the incidence of hepatic adenoma tumors and hepatocellular carcinoma.
More recently, a 2011 study lead by Guillermo Velasco and Manuel Guzman, professors at Complutense University in Madrid, Spain, also found cannabinoids have positive antitumor effects on liver cancer.
Velasco and Guzman are considered leading researchers into the field of cannabis and cancer and have published numerous papers on the topic.
Their 2011 study found that both THC and a synthetic CB2 agonist had antitumor effects on mice with hepatocellular carcinoma. Like in some of their previous studies, Guzman, Velasco, and their team of researchers noted that both THC and the synthetic compound were able to trigger cell death in the tumors.
Both Guzman and Velasco have lead numerous other studies into the effects of cannabinoids on cancer cells, especially those of brain tumors like gliomas. Other researchers are also elaborating on this field, testing the effects of cannabinoids like THC and CBD on tumors affecting the breast, skin, colon and lungs, as well as leukemia.
Guzman and Velasco suggest that there are two main ways cannabinoids produce antitumor effects. Firstly, they are able to trigger cell death (or apoptosis) by stimulating a specific stress pathway that triggers this response.
Secondly, they are literally able to starve tumors by hindering their ability to grow blood vessels to deliver nutrients to the tumor site as well as excrete waste products.
Besides these studies, some cancer patients have made waves by documenting their own experiences of using cannabis to treat their condition.
There are stories like this making ripples online, and with good reason. While they may not be regarded as gold-level medical studies by doctors and researchers, they still make a strong case for the power of cannabis as a cancer treatment.
CAN CANNABIS CURE CANCER?
It is important to note that, while these studies and reports are awe-inspiring, it is too early to conclude that cannabinoids can effectively be used as a cancer cure/treatment.
In an interview, oncologist and integrative medicine specialist at the UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine in San Francisco, Dr. Donald Abrams puts it like this:
“After 33 years of being an oncologist in San Francisco, I would guess that a large proportion of the patients I have treated have used cannabis. If cannabis definitively cured cancer, I would have expected that I would have a lot more survivors. That being said, what we do know is that cannabis is truly an amazing medicine for many cancer and treatment-related side effects.”
As is often the case with medical marijuana, there isn’t enough high-quality clinical evidence to come to concrete conclusions about whether it can cure liver cancer. Nonetheless, the evidence is beginning to add up.
As legislation changes and people change their opinions towards cannabis, hopefully we’ll soon have the evidence needed to come to concrete conclusion about this drug’s role in treating cancer.
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. Cannabis.info is strictly a news and information website. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.