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How Cannabinoids Help Treat Cancer

By Sherry Christiansen

Key Takeaways

  1. Chemical substances that target the endocannabinoid system (ECS) are being investigated for anticancer and palliative properties.  
  2. The ECS, a molecular system involved in the body’s health and disease states, exerts natural anticancer mechanisms. 
  3. A growing body of study data suggests cannabinoids exert anticancer effects at multiple levels of tumor progression. 
  4. Studies have found that several cannabinoids from the cannabis plant were found to have anticancer and antitumor properties. 

How Cannabinoids Help Treat Cancer

Scientists have been investigating substances that target the endocannabinoid system (ECS) as pharmacological cancer treatment options. These substances include cannabinoids such as cannabidiol (CBD), cannabinol (CBN), cannabichromene (CBC), and more, may help fight cancer and improve the quality of life for those with cancer by promoting health and wellness (e.g., sleep promotion and anxiety relief).1 

What is the Endocannabinoid System? (ECS) 

The ECS is a molecular system responsible for several important bodily functions, such as immunity and regulating body temperature. The ECS includes a network of cellular receptors and chemical signals that transmit cellular signals via neurotransmitters. The system includes endocannabinoids, cannabinoid receptors and enzymes that regulate the body’s functions by inhibiting or facilitating neuromodulation (i.e., nerve transmission). The ECS helps the body maintain stability regardless of physiological effects. Exogenous cannabinoids, such as cannabidiol (CBD), mimic the function of the body’s endocannabinoids by interacting with its receptors to maintain homeostasis. Learn more about the endocannabinoid system here.

The ECS and Cancer

The endocannabinoid system has been shown to have anticancer mechanisms; it works by regulating various signaling pathways, inhibiting tumor cell proliferation (i.e., the increase in number of tumor cells), and/or inducing apoptosis (i.e., a process of cell self-destruction that is marked by the fragmentation of nuclear DNA). 2 

Cannabinoids and Cancer Treatment

Cannabinoids have been studied for use in cancer-related symptoms. Dr. Bonnie Goldstein in her book, “Cannabis is Medicine,” explains that despite the lack of clinical research evidence to support the effectiveness of cannabinoids for chemo-related nausea and vomiting, many patients prefer it for CINV (cancer-induced nausea and vomiting) and other symptoms, such as:7 

  • Moderate to severe pain 
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Insomnia 
  • Anxiety 

Besides palliative care, several preliminary and animal studies show that cannabinoids exhibit anticancer effects in some types of cancer.  

According to study authors of a 2016 study published in Current Pharmaceutical Design, “Remarkably, cannabinoids target cancer cells, while non-tumor cells and tissues are avoided. This apparent selectivity for tumor cells makes the ECS system an attractive potential target for cancer therapy.” 4 

Several preclinical studies have identified cannabinoid compounds as a viable option for cancer treatment. In fact, a growing body of study data suggests cannabinoids exert anticancer effects at multiple levels of tumor progression. Cannabinoids have been found to exert anticancer effects via various signal transduction mechanisms. Signal transduction involves a series of molecular events that result in how a chemical or physical signal is transmitted through a cell. 4 

A 2011 study, published by the British Journal of Pharmacology reports, “There is considerable evidence for cannabinoid-mediated inhibition of tumor cell proliferation, tumor invasion and metastasis, angiogenesis [new blood vessel development] and chemoresistance [the state of being resistant to a chemical or drug], as well as induction of apoptosis, and autophagy [the breakdown of the cytoplasm or the cytoplasmic components of cells by enzymes].” 4 

Further studies show the potential for cannabinoids to be effective when combined with other cancer treatment modalities, such as chemotherapy or other interventions. The non-psychoactive cannabinoid, CBD has been shown to have favorable effects on tumor cells and cancerous tissues. 4 

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Studies

A 2021 Review Study  

A 2021 review study reports that several of the total 150 cannabinoids from the Cannabis sativa plant are known to have anticancer properties including: 6 

  • Cannabidiol (CBD) 
  • Delta-9- (THC) 
  • Cannabinol (CBN) 
  • Cannabichromene (CBC)   

The study reports that Cannabis sativa exerts its anticancer properties by: 6 

  • Inducing apoptosis 
  • Inhibiting cell migration 
  • Inhibiting metastasis in several types of cancer 

The combination of CBD and THC was found to inhibit proliferation of glioblastoma cells in mouse models. 6  Learn about CBG for treatment of glioblastoma on the CSCI research brief here.  

Other reports of study outcomes include: 

  • CBC shows anti-proliferation action in prostate cell lines, colorectal cancer cells, and breast cancer cell lines 
  • CBN exhibits pro-apoptotic properties on human prostate cell lines and inhibits growth of breast cancer cells  
  • An additional cannabinoid, named cannabidivarin (CBDV), inhibits cancer cell growth

Resources

  1. British Journal of Cancer. Cannabinoids as anticancer drugs: current status of preclinical research. Published March, 2022. 
  2. Laezza C, Pagano C, Navarra G, et al. The endocannabinoid system: a target for cancer treatment. IJMS. 2020;21(3):747. doi: 10.3390/ijms21030747  
  3. I. Khan M, A. Soboci|ska A, M. Czarnecka A, Król M, Botta B, Szczylik C. The therapeutic aspects of the endocannabinoid system (Ecs) for cancer and their development: from nature to laboratory. 2016;22(12):1756-1766.doi: 10.2174/1381612822666151211094901  
  4. Guindon J, Hohmann AG. The endocannabinoid system and cancer: therapeutic implication: Cannabinoids and cancer. British Journal of Pharmacology. 2011;163(7):1447-1463.doi: 10.1111/j.1476-5381.2011.01327.x  
  5. Dariš B, Tancer Verboten M, Knez Ž, Ferk P. Cannabinoids in cancer treatment: Therapeutic potential and legislation. Bosn J of Basic Med Sci. 2019;19(1):14-23. doi: 10.17305/bjbms.2018.3532  
  6. Pagano C, Navarra G, Coppola L, Bifulco M, Laezza C. Molecular mechanism of cannabinoids in cancer progression. IJMS. 2021;22(7):3680.doi: 10.3390/ijms22073680  
  7. Goldstein, B. Cannabis is Medicine. Little Brown Spark. Copyright 2020. 
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