The evidence supporting medical cannabis for the side effects of cancer treatments is well established. But what about cannabis for treating cancer itself?
Much of the research remains in very preliminary stages. But, there is an explosion of curiosity among cancer patients seeking alternative treatment, fueled mainly by online misinformation.
Clearly, patients are eager for natural alternatives to radiation and chemotherapy, but are cannabis and cannabinoid therapy the solution?
Does Cannabis Have Anti-tumoral Properties?
Thanks to the rising rates of health inquiries made online and the growing problem of misinformation circulating on social media, there has been a measurable uptick in “cannabis and cancer” searches over the last decade. As one study discovered, between 2011 and 2018, Google search queries for cannabis and cancer “increased at 10 times the rate of [searches for] standard therapies.”
It’s part of the reason why cancer groups like the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute have had to issue statements on cannabis for cancer. It’s been up to these organizations to combat the growing sentiment among patients that cannabis could possibly cure cancer instead of targeting the adverse effects associated with cancer treatments.
By the end of 2021, most of the research into the potential of cannabis for cancer treatment was in the very preliminary phases of study, which means in Petri dishes and, at its most advanced, in mice. This early body of academic work does show promise.
According to one synopsis, THC and other cannabinoids bind to the endocannabinoid receptors on cancer cells. This seems to interrupt the cell’s ability to signal. With limited intracellular signalling, some studies have noted increased cancer cell apoptosis, reduced proliferation, migration, and metastasis, and impaired tumor angiogenesis.
But, and this is a significant caveat, “oncologists well know that what is observed in culture or animal models does not always readily translate into clinical benefit.”
Social media and patient testimonials continue to misrepresent and falsely report on these early findings. Because, these results don’t yet prove cannabis’ anti-tumoral and cancer-fighting powers for people.
There is substantial scientific support for cannabis for reducing cancer-related pain, and chemotherapy related nausea and vomiting. But, when it comes to targeting cancer cells and tumors, the evidence is less robust.
The Missing Link: Randomized Control Trials and Clinical Trials
Cannabis and its many derivatives continue to frustrate researchers because it’s challenging to adapt into a well-controlled clinical study. Although technologies are coming down the pipeline that may improve this, the raw plant material is highly variable, and traditional methods of consumption make patient intake challenging to measure.
On top of the challenges posed by a complex plant, there still remain several barriers to access because the Food and Drug Administration continues to hold THC as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Legalization is spreading at the state level, but often it’s the federal level that matters for the large-scale studies needed to bring new medicines to market.
At the time of writing, there were no clinical trials searchable on ClinicalTrials.gov specifically using cannabis or cannabinoids to target cancer and tumor development. However, one recent and still early phase study (Phase 1b) tested nabiximols (pharmaceutical THC:CBD oromucosal spray) as a conjunctive treatment for recurrent glioblastoma.
The results from this small study suggest a good safety profile and high patient tolerability. Very interestingly, the results also suggest reduced disease progression and better survival rates for most of the 12 patients receiving the combined treatment. But, as the authors conclude, “the observed survival differences support further exploration in an adequately powered randomised controlled trial.”
Another small study looking at dexanabinol for brain cancer published findings in 2021. The conclusion? Dexanabinol, a synthetic cannabinoid, was well tolerated but had limited anti-tumor activity.
Beyond these limited human trials, there is little information available on cannabis and cannabinoids for treating cancer itself. Because, what works in the lab or in a mouse-model, doesn’t always translate into humans. There is an urgent need for new studies with improved controls to move this research into the clinical space from preliminary status.
The RYAH Solution to Studying Plant-based Medicines
In July 2021, RYAH Group announced it had shipped the first round of RYAH Smart Dry Herb Inhalers and accessories to an international clinic based in the United Kingdom. The clinic is currently undertaking one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive trials for medical cannabis. In November, RYAH made a follow-up announcement that orders for follow-up shipments were in place.
RYAH Group, with its suite of IoT devices and integrated data solutions, is helping researchers seeking to increase session accuracy, consistently collect patient feedback and improve data integrity for plant-based preparations within a clinical framework.
As Gregory Wagner, CEO of RYAH Group, Inc, stated in one of the recent press releases, “We continue to evolve our product and software solutions to help clinicians and researchers unlock breakthroughs in clinical research and analytics.”
It’s far too soon for patients to forego traditional treatments for standalone medical cannabis therapy, no matter what is spreading via social media. There are just not any peer-reviewed, randomized clinical trials, which are needed to establish cannabis as a viable treatment for cancer.
But, technology continues to evolve. And with improved dose control technology, it’s possible to study heterogeneous and complex plant-based medicines in a controlled clinical setting.