Virginia Thornley, M.D., Neurologist, Epileptologist
March 10, 2018
Cannabinoids, which are cannabis plant-based non-synthetic medications including cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), are being used more frequently in palliative care to reduce the pain associated with end-stage cancer. In addition, it is well-established that it helps with lack of appetite found in cancer patients and reduces nausea and vomiting associated with many of the chemotherapeutic drug regimens (2), although current studies are needed given the newer chemotherapeutic agents available. Although there were more reported side effects using cannabinoids including euphoria, dizziness, dysphoria, and somnolence it is not clear if low dosages were used or what the ratio of cannabidiol to THC was used. It is well known that using higher doses of THC products will control the pain more adequately but at high doses may cause the side effect. Cannabidiol alone has no intoxication or euphoria and a low dose of cannabidiol combined with THC will ameliorate some of the side effects of THC. Questions regarding its anti-tumor properties often arise which physicians managing patients with cancer are not prepared to answer. Since most of the studies are done in animal models and are often difficult to translate into the human model, research is needed with randomized clinical trials in the patient population. Currently, most anti-tumor literature is found in cell culture lines and extrapolated. The future is promising but large human studies are needed.
In renal cancer
Cannabinoids work through 2 receptors CB1 found in highest numbers in the brain and CB2 which is predominant in the immune system. In renal cancer, the CB1 receptor is found to be lower in number which may suggest that a reduced number of cannabinoid receptors leads to less control over the proliferation of tumor cells. There is a high concentration in the proximal convoluted tubule which suggests that a down-regulation may be associated with less inhibition of tumor cell proliferation (1). In another study, CB1 receptors were similar in chromophobe tissue lines were similar to renal cells with no tumor. This may serve as a diagnostic tool for differentiating it from clear cell tumors. It is often difficult to differentiate between the two. Chromophobe tumors have the same number of CB1 receptors while clear cell carcinomas have less CB1 receptors. This is important from the histological and diagnostic standpoint (1).
In prostatic cancer
In prostate cancer, some mechanisms suggested through studies include working through phosphatase induction. It was found that CB1 and CB2 are expressed during later stages of prostatic cancer. Treatment of prostate cancer culture cells with cannabinoids was found to reduce the multiplication of tumor cells, suggesting a role through apoptotic mechanisms. The effect was dependent on dosage. In another study, cannabinoids were found to increase cytokine IL-6 in prostate cancer that is androgen resistant. This suggests that CB2 agonists may play an important role in reducing epithelial cell proliferation and may lead to a means to treat prostatic cancer (1). More studies are needed to elucidate mechanisms leading to treatment of prostatic cancer.
In bladder cancer
There is much evidence that inflammation found in cancer may lead to the metastatic stage. Cancer can lead to a pro-inflammatory state inducing cytokine and growth factor release leading to the environment conducive to metastasis and invasion of cancer cells into other tissues. In one study of the CB1 and CB2 receptors, it was found that activation of CB1 receptors played an important role in regulating tumor cell proliferation while CB2 was important in influencing an inflammatory state (1). Further studies are needed to further elucidate the mechanisms of cannabinoids on bladder cancer.
- Ghandhi, et al, “Systemic review of the potential role of cannabinoids as anti-proliferative agents for urological cancer,” Can. Urol. Assoc. J., 2017, May,-April., 11(3-4):E138-E142.
- Smith, et al, “Cannabinoids for nausea and vomiting in adults receiving chemotherapy,” Cochrane Database Syst. Rev., Nov., 12(11):CD009464. doi: 10.1002/1465