One of the most buzzworthy words in cancer research and treatment right now is cannabinoids. If the word cannabinoid is making you think of cannabis, you’re on the right track. Worldwide clinicians and medical professionals are exploring the potent green plant and its potential to treat cancer and its symptoms, though it certainly doesn’t look like the ‘bag of dope you’d buy at the pub.’
Cannabis is an incredibly complex plant. There are over 700 different cultivated varieties of cannabis, 144 known cannabinoids, not to mention the multiple terpenes and other components of the plant that may work together in synergy to have a therapeutic effect.
Recently, Dr Judith Lacey spoke at a Sydney Catalyst education event on Cannabinoids and Cancer. After becoming increasingly intrigued by the field of medicinal cannabis, Dr Lacey felt she “needed to be involved in the research.” And she is certainly is not the only one intrigued with the potential of cannabis in cancer treatment. It is estimated that over 1,000 Australians per month are being prescribed cannabis for medicinal purposes. In contrast, it’s thought that up to 100,000 Australians are self-medicating with various forms of the plant. But what are cannabinoids? And why are medical professionals all over the world interested in the relationships between it and cancer?
Cannabinoids are chemical compounds from the cannabis plant that work on the body by activating cannabinoid receptors in our brains and bodies.
Surprisingly, our bodies naturally produce cannabinoids, known as endocannabinoids. Like those found in the cannabis plant, these also activate the cannabinoid receptors in our bodies.
If there is a problem or deficiency with our endocannabinoid system, it is thought that we can experience pain and other unpleasant physical symptoms. Though our endocannabinoid system is very complex and not yet fully understood, it exists and is active in our body even if you don’t use cannabis. This system plays a role in regulating many critical processes and functions such as sleep, appetite, mood, fertility and memory amongst many others.
Cancer and its treatments, particularly chemotherapy and radiotherapy, often cause clusters of symptoms that arise in patients. Minimising or eliminating these symptoms, for example pain associated with poor sleep, is extremely appealing and thus the increased interest by doctors and researchers around the world in cannabis for cancer treatment.
THC and CBD are the two natural cannabinoids
that have been studied and researched the most extensively. Though both have
the same molecular structure, atoms are arranged differently in both which
accounts for the differing effects they can have. CBD/Cannabidiol is thought to be a non-psychoactive compound that acts on cannabinoid
receptors to reduce inflammation, can reduce epileptic seizures in some
childhood epileptic disorders, in combination with THC is thought to modulate
the negative effects of THC and make it more tolerable. It may help anxiety,
sleep and pain.
THC binds with the CB1 as well as other receptors in the brain and the periphery. In non-medicinal dosages it produces the well-known and sometimes feared ‘high’ sensation as it is a psychoactive cannabinoid. It may be beneficial in easing the debilitating symptoms many cancer patients experience such as nausea, loss of appetite, anxiety, chronic pain and inflammation.
“Cancer is a rapidly changing field. People aren’t dying as quickly anymore but they may be living with a lot of complex symptoms,” Dr Lacey says.
Ultimately as research into medicinal cannabis continues to evolve, its use in treating the symptoms of cancer all over the world will develop and expand. Right now, Dr Lacey can prescribe cannabis for patients with refractory symptoms and advanced cancer. Of the 30% of her referrals that mention cannabis, 45% will meet the criteria. It is prescribed in consultation with a holistic supportive care and exercise, other therapies as well as lifestyle changes.
For now, when patients are faced with the reality taking many drugs to cure a myriad of symptoms individually as opposed to a “few drops under the tongue at night” of cannabis oil, Dr Lacey says. “We have an obligation to see what we can do in this space and to do better.” “The most important aim is to treat people’s symptom and improve their quality of life.”