Some might think that it’s too good to be true. Does cannabis really kill brain cancer cells? Clinical trials on humans are awaiting results, but recent research gives hope. Scientists have been testing THC as a natural tumor-killer for nearly two decades. Their findings will take you by surprise.
Cannabis and brain cancer
A group of Spanish researchers has been searching for cannabis-based cancer treatments for nearly two decades. The team is from the Completeness University of Madrid. Thus far, some of their experiments have been nothing short of miraculous.
The team, lead by Professors Guillermo Velasco and Manuel Guzman, are testing cannabinoid treatment’s ability to kill glioma cells. Gliomas make up 80% of all malignant brain cancers. In fact, it’s one of the most aggressive forms of cancer out there. Once a glioblastoma reaches stage 4, the average life expectancy is less than two years. This is with surgery and traditional treatments like radiation and chemotherapy.
With such grim diagnoses, developing effective treatment alternatives is an absolute must. Fortunately, the Madrid team is finding success where few thought success was possible.
Back in the early 2000s, Dr. Velasco and his team had a breakthrough. They applied extracted THC to glioblastoma cells cultured outside of the body. THC is the main psychoactive compound in cannabis. What happened shocked researchers around the world. The tumor cells stopped growing. Later on, tumor cells actually began to die.
But, how? Turns out, THC kills glioblastoma cells in a couple of ways. THC and other cannabinoids cut off the tumor’s blood supply and cause cancer cells to commit suicide.
Death by starvation
In 2004, researchers found that cannabis alters genes that produce a compound known as VEGF. VEGF stands for Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor. This compound helps grow new blood vessels. When cancer cells begin to grow large, they need to start creating their own blood vessels.
The Spanish researchers treated mice and two human brain cancer patients with cannabinoid medicines. In both models, VEGF was reduced, limiting the tumors’ blood supply. This finding was truly groundbreaking. Coupled with additional evidence that cannabis can slow the growth of tumors, the case for cannabinoid medicines just kept getting stronger.
Another major discovery that cannabinoids may actually kill cancer cells. Compounds in the herb prevented tumors from growing, began to starve them by cutting off the blood supply, and eventually cause cancer cells to self-destruct. This self-destruction is a form of what scientists called “programmed cell death”.
Programmed cell death occurs in two ways: apoptosis and autophagy. Both apoptosis and autophagy are normal for cells. When a cell becomes too old or damaged, the body uses these mechanisms to eliminate the rogue cell.
For some reason, cancer cells do not self-destruct. Rather, they continue to grow and grow, creating life-threatening tumors. In their investigations, the Spanish researchers found that THC caused cancer cells to “auto-digest themselves”, or undergo autophagy.
“We actually discovered a new mechanism by which cannabinoids activate a signalling pathway that involves what we call autophagy, which would be like the self-digestion of the cells. So, actually, when cannabinoids are binding to the cells, they trigger a cell-signalling mechanism. One of the things they are activating is like a self-digestion of the cell that is leading to cancer cell death.” – Dr. Velasco.
The funny thing is, this cell death only happens to cancer cells. Normal cells in the body remain unharmed. This finding is interesting since back in 1998 the same group of researchers found that THC also triggers apoptosis in glioma cells as well. So, cannabinoids kill cancer cells by utilizing both mechanisms of programmed cell death.
Clinical trials to begin
Velasco and his team are working on a larger trial. The trial will include 30 to 40 glioma patients in a handful of Spanish hospitals. The Complutense University of Madrid has teamed up with these hospitals to administer cannabis treatments and test the efficacy. This is the first time something like this will be done at this scale in a hospital setting.
Funds for their research came mostly from crowdfunding efforts throughout Europe. Some of the largest sums came from the Medical Cannabis Bike Tour. The annual tour is organized by Luc Krol of Amsterdam’s Paradise Seeds and has raised several thousand Euro for Velasco’s research.
Back in 2006, Velasco’s team conducted a pilot study with only nine glioblastoma patients. The study looked at THC only, and it was administered intracranially. Meaning, it was given to their brains directly. Moving forward, cannabinoid medicines will be administered in other formats.
The results of the pilot study are interesting. The study looked at patients who were unresponsive to conventional treatments and had already had surgery to remove the tumors. After surgery, most of the patients lived an average of 24 weeks, even with THC administration. Yet, two of the patients continued to live for another year. In those patients, THC treatment seemed to slow the progression of tumor cells temporarily.
Eight of the nine patients showed a positive response THC treatment, which gives hope for the larger clinical trial moving forward.
Not everyone can expect the same results from cannabis treatment. Yet, anecdotal and clinical evidence suggest that canabis medicines are just around the corner. For now, we can only use the resources that we have and wait for Velasco and his team to finish their research. Here’s hoping for positive results.