Cannabis for Brain Cancer: New Science Shows Serious Potential

Health Anna Wilcox 8/29/2018
cannabis for brain cancer
How much do we REALLY know about cannabis and brain cancer?

“A diagnosis of a brain tumor is probably one of the most frightening conversations that you can have with your doctor,” begins Mara Gordon.

Gordon is the founder of Aunt Zelda’s, a company which creates specialized blends of cannabis supplements for medical cannabis patients.

Over the past eight years, thousands of California cannabis patients have made appointments with the Aunt Zelda’s team in an effort to manage many different and complex medical conditions with cannabis.

Yet, it's cancer patients who make up a large portion of the Aunt Zelda’s clientele.

“We don’t know a lot of people walking around years and years later after a diagnosis of brain cancer because the traditional treatments just do not work that well,” explains Gordon in a Green Flower Beginner Series segment on cannabis and brain cancer.

Indeed, cancers of the brain pose a particularly difficult challenge to oncologists.

While surgery, targeted radiation therapies, and advancements in chemotherapy over the years have dramatically improved the outlook for cancer patients, many conventional chemotherapy drugs have difficulty actually making it into the brain.

The brain is protected by a blood-brain barrier, which is a protective blockade that lines blood vessels in the brain. This blockade is excellent for keeping pathogens and toxic compounds away from the brain, but the barrier majorly gets in the way when doctors try to deliver medicines to the vital organ.

For this reason, continuing to research and find medicines that can effectively cross the blood-brain barrier and impact cancer cells is vital for enhancing the lives and improving outcomes in patients with brain cancers.

Amazingly, early research suggests that cannabinoids, the natural compounds found in the cannabis plant, might do just that.

The incredible science behind cannabis for brain cancer 

cannabis science
Cannabis research is gaining momentum -- but is it moving fast enough?

Cannabis research typically comes with one major caveat: most studies have been conducted in Petri dishes and rodents.

Due to decades of legal research restrictions around the globe, experiments and trials of cannabis medicines in humans were nearly impossible. It is only thanks to the recent public pushes for cannabis reform around the world that policy supporting cannabis science is beginning to change.

In 2017, the first human trial of a medicine made from the cannabis plant was given to a small group of 21 patients with an aggressive form of brain cancer, called glioblastoma multiforme.  

Glioblastoma multiforme is a very fast-growing and unruly form of cancer, causing tumors to develop in cells that provide support to neurons, the most famous type of brain cell.

While an equally aggressive treatment protocol is recommended for patients with the disease, only an estimated 20 percent of patients experience long-term tumor control. In fact, the average life expectancy for patients with this type of cancer is a mere 15 to 16 months.

Yet, if the results of a recent trial provide any indication, cannabis medicines may be about to make some big changes in cancer treatment.

In a phase 2 clinical trial, glioblastoma patients treated with both chemotherapy and a combination of cannabis compounds lived longer than those who were treated with chemotherapy and a placebo.

The trial was conducted by GW Pharmaceuticals, a British biopharmaceutical company that specializes in cannabis medicines. While many different life science companies are popping up to research medicinal cannabis, GW arguably has the strongest lead on the competition.

The medicine tested used a combination of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). THC is more famously known as the compound that causes the classic cannabis “high”.

CBD, on the other hand, is a non-intoxicating phytochemical more well-known for its ability to put a halt to life-threatening seizures.

Patients given the cannabis medicine along with the chemotherapy drug, temozolomide, had an 83 percent one-year survival rate compared to those given the placebo, which hovered around 53 percent.

To put this in a more realistic framework, those given the medical cannabis preparation lived for an average of 550 days while the others lived for an average of 369 days.

But, there’s more.

cannabis for brain cancer
Scientists have observed THC's ability to wipe out cancer cells.

The small study mentioned above isn’t the only human trial conducted on cannabis for glioma. Back in 2006, a group of Spanish researchers tested the effects of THC in nine glioblastoma multiforme patients through intracranial administration.

Intracranial meaning through the skull.

While the patients did not see the same extended survival time as those mentioned in the GW Pharmaceuticals study above, researchers did find evidence that THC administration increased the death of tumor cells.

Yep, that’s right. THC seemed to actually trigger tumor cells to die.

This finding would inspire further research in animal test subjects, where the same researchers later found that THC successfully reduced tumor proliferation and caused tumor cells to die in rodents with experimental brain cancer.

Mara Gordon explains in her Green Flower video why this might be the case:

“We have found that the brain is just filled with CB1 and CB2 receptors,” says Gordon. These receptors are the landing sites for cannabis medicines. They sit on the surface of cells and are triggered by the active components in the cannabis plant.

It is these receptor sites that cause the psychoactive effects of some cannabis strains. Yet, the ability of cannabis molecules to engage these receptor sites is also what gives the ancient herb its therapeutic effects.

“So,” Gordon continues, “if your tumor is in your brain, you have a lot to target with cannabinoid therapy.”

The Aunt Zelda’s team are among the few who have witnessed the positive effects of cannabis supplementation on cancer patients firsthand.

“We’ve had people come out of hospice,” says Gordon. “We’ve had people come out of hospice after beginning cannabis treatment because all of a sudden the cancer cells that were growing out of control stop and start reversing that train, going the other way, and shrinking.”

Still so much to learn.

cannabis for brain cancer patient
How many people would benefit if we lifted restrictions on cannabis research?

While Gordon and her team are not conducting formal clinical trials in the standard way, the group keeps a detailed record of the medical status of each patient as well as their precise daily dosage of cannabis medicines.

Yet, while these early trials and reports are promising, it is important to acknowledge that cannabis has not been thoroughly tested as an add-on treatment with chemotherapy.

Further, research thus far has focused intensely on cannabis for glioblastoma. There are many different types of brain cancers, and the herb may not have the same anti-proliferative effect in all of them.

Even the informal data gathered by the Aunt Zelda’s team has indicated that cannabis seems to be more helpful for some patients than in others.

“There is one [type of brain cancer] that is called DIPG,” Gordon tells Green Flower, “and DIPG is in the brainstem. Unfortunately, there are just not [enough of the] CB1 receptors for the cannabinoids to activate in the brainstem, so it can be a lot more devastating.”

The potential anti-cancer ability of the cannabis plant is both astounding and exciting. However, doctors and scientists are still a long ways off from figuring out how well cannabis works as an anti-cancer tool, let alone developing ready-to-use cannabis medicines for patients to take now.

In the meantime, resources like Aunt Zelda’s are helping patients use the plant in the most efficient way. Even in difficult-to-treat DIPG, Gordon sees promise.

“We have found extended life and far, far greater quality of life when treating it with traditional medicine along with cannabinoids.”

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