In what seems to be race to connect cannabis with cancer treatment, and add a huge burst of credibility to medical cannabis, new developments are coming in a flurry.
But there are hints that research elsewhere – notably in Israel – is digging deeper into using cannabis as not just a treatment, but as a cure for cancer.
It’s a slow process, especially in the U.S. According to the National Cancer Institute, to conduct clinical drug research on cannabis in the United States, researchers must file an Investigational New Drug (IND) application with the FDA, obtain a Schedule I license from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and obtain approval from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. A company must use cannabis from only federally approved grow operations, and there’s only one so far (the DEA says they are reviewing over 50 applications from other grow operations now).
Still, finding a new cannabis-based drug just to treat the effects of cancer represents a huge opportunity for the cannabis industry.
Zion Market Research, an international market and industry research company, published a report late last year stating that the global cancer drugs market was valued at approximately $112.90 billion in 2015 and is expected to generate revenue of around $161.30 billion by end of 2021.
The reported added that the global cancer drugs market is primarily driven by growing incidences of so-called “target” diseases, such as lung cancer, breast cancer, cervical cancer, among others.
Treatment is one thing. But using cannabis to actually cure cancer is getting closer.
According to a published report from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the potential use of cannabinoids to slow down tumor growth is appealing considering that canabanoids show a good safety profile about potential toxicity, and are already being used in cancer patients to stimulate appetite and prevent chemo side-effects such as nausea, vomiting and pain.
In experiments with mice, animals given very high doses of purified THC seemed to have a lower risk of developing cancer, and there has been some research suggesting that endocannabinoids (cannabinoids produced by the body) can suppress tumor growth.
But even with these tantalizing results, there’s no solid scientific evidence at the moment to show that cannabinoids or cannabis can cut the risk of cancer in people. Medical organizations are addressing the issue, but maintain a cautionary approach.
For instance, Worldwide Cancer Research (WCR) is not ready to recommend diving into cannabis as a cure, saying that there has been some promising results of using cannabis for cancer treatment but that “killing cancer cells in the lab is much easier than killing cancer cells in a person.”
“What decades of cancer research have told us is that cancer is extremely complex disease,” WCR states. “It varies enormously, not only between its different forms, but also from person to person and from tumor to tumor. Because of this, it seems extremely unlikely that there could ever be a single cure for all cancers, and claims to this effect should always be viewed with skepticism.”
Here in the U.S., the American Cancer Society supports the need for more scientific research on cannabinoids for cancer patients, and recognizes the need for better and more effective therapies that can overcome some of the side effects of cancer and its treatment, especially nausea and pain management. “The Society also believes that the classification of marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance by the US Drug Enforcement Administration imposes numerous conditions on researchers and deters scientific study of cannabinoids,” the ACS states on its website. “Federal officials should examine options consistent with federal law for enabling more scientific study on marijuana.”
But what these organizations and their reports are telling the industry is that clinicians are looking closer at using cannabis for cancer treatment, and potentially a cancer cure, and huge pharmaceutical companies like Bayer and GW Pharmaceuticals are rumored to be either preparing clinical trials or working with other pharmaceutical companies to find out more about cannabis and cancer.
One example of a pharmaceutical company going deeper into cannabis as a cure is Cannabis Pharmaceuticals (CP), a U.S.-based public company. CP’s research and development is based in Israel, where it is licensed to work in both scientific and clinical research. It is developing diagnostic procedures designated for delivering precise data regarding the individual patients treatment choices for treating cancer and its side-effects, and is currently engaged in a clinical study in Israel, on cannabis capsules as treatment to improve cancer related weight loss in advanced cancer patients.
And at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, biologist Dr. David Meiri has been working on research showing that combinations of different compounds in cannabis can be extremely effective in destroying specific cancer cells.
He first identifies the chemical composition of different strains of cannabis, then applies these strains to different cancer cell samples to find out which strains of cannabis kill which specific cancer cells.
What cannabis has the potential to do, he told NoCamels, a news service that covers leading technology innovation in Israel, is akin to “bringing back the ability of the cancer to commit suicide.”
“We’re talking about very low dosages, milligrams of extract that are killing the cells,” Meiri told NoCamels. “This is a similar dosage to what is currently administered for chemotherapy, and is small enough to not kill normal, healthy cells. It means that cannabis could be a viable drug to be prescribed for cancer in the future.”