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Can Marijuana Send Brain Cancer Into Remission?

Research published in the journal Child’s Nervous System suggest that the combination of chemicals found in marijuana—the mixture of various cannabinoids—exerts an anti-tumor effect

If the result is confirmed in further research, it may be that the combination of chemicals found in marijuana exerts an anti-tumor effect. Surprisingly, this has already been suggested by research on animals, and the case report adds another piece of evidence that pot may help to fight the growth of tumors. However, the current legal status of the drug in the majority of countries in the world may slow the process of this potential breakthrough.

What They Did

The research was a case report, which effectively relayed the medical stories of two children, ages 11 and 13, with brain tumors. The medical procedure was the same for both of them, with a craniotomy being performed to remove the majority of the tumor and small remnants of the cancerous tissue remaining in each patient. They were then monitored over the following six years so physicians would be able to take further action if required. This is all fairly routine, but everything changed when both patients started to consume marijuana. It’s worth noting that the experimenters didn’t administer marijuana to the patients — the youths began to smoke it as part of their ordinary life.

What They Found

The impact of marijuana consumption on the tumors was striking. With no other clinical intervention to speak of, the patients’ marijuana consumption appeared to be the only relevant factor in their later remission. The 13-year-old patient started smoking marijuana at age 14—just after her diagnosis—and was an almost-daily user between ages 16 and 19. During the first three years, there was a slight increase in mass of the remaining tumor tissue, but in the period of daily marijuana consumption, the tumor began to shrink. The authors note that at the end of the six-year period, the tumor had almost disappeared. According to the researchers, cannabis inhalation appeared to be the most significant variable in the patient’s remission, and the period of regular use coincided strikingly with the period of remission.

The younger patient’s story is very similar. For the first three years, there was no significant change in the mass of the tumor, but it began to reduce when the patient turned 14, until it was almost entirely gone at the end of the six-year follow-up period. As with the other case, the patient began smoking marijuana (although this time only around three times per week) during this period, and this was the only clinically significant fact gleaned from her history.

Other Research

The problem with this study is that it’s a case report. While the stories are compelling, the fact is that there could be — and likely are — millions of cancer sufferers who smoke pot regularly and don’t experience a reduction in tumor size. This is why clinical research is the most valuable; patients are randomly allocated one intervention or another, and the drug’s impacts on a larger sample can be assessed. However, the fact that other research has found similar effects in animal models and initial clinical research in humans has been moderately positive means there may be something more to the reports. The clinical study found that there were no overt psychoactive effects of administration of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the primary active ingredient in marijuana) directly into the tumor site, and provided some evidence that it could stunt the growth of tumors. Further research has also added credence to the notion that the combination of chemicals in marijuana create a greater anti-cancer effect.

Is It True? The Answer May Be Far Away

Existing research on the topic has consistently called for further studies, but as the case report itself mentions, this isn’t easy to accomplish given the legal status of marijuana in many jurisdictions and parts of the world. It could be that a reasonably well-tolerated substance has a notable protective effect against one of the world’s biggest killers, but the legislative barriers are preventing the answer from being determined.

Alongside the ever-present issues of funding (with most clinical research funded by pharmaceutical companies, a trial on an inexpensive and impossible-to-patent substance is unlikely to be a priority), the time it takes to come up with a definitive scientific answer means that the ruling isn’t exactly around the corner. For now, there are tantalizing glimpses of the potential for marijuana to be used in cancer treatment (for something other than nausea relief), but a complete lack of certainty.

There is still hope.

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