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Can Marijuana Fight Leukemia?

Many cancer patients have turned to marijuana for relief from cancer-related pain and nausea associated with chemotherapy treatments. However, medical cannabis is also gaining popularity for its ability to fight the disease itself – an ability which seems to span numerous forms of cancer.

Interestingly, recent research points to leukemia as being one of these cancers. And there is no doubt that an effective treatment is greatly needed. In 2000, approximately 256,000 children and adults around the world developed some form of leukemia, 209,000 of whom died from it.

What is Leukemia?

Leukemia is a type of cancer that affects the blood or bone marrow, most often white blood cells. White blood cells are part of the immune system and play a key role in defending the body against infections.
Leukemia does not refer to a single disease, but rather covers a broad spectrum of diseases. Leukemia can be classified as either chronic or acute, depending on the rate of progression, and by the type of white blood cells that are affected. Acute lymphocytic (or lymphoblastic) leukemia is the most common leukemia that occurs in children.

Most forms of leukemia are treated with chemotherapy. However, treatment becomes less effective when leukemia spreads – usually to the central nervous system, skin and gums, and sometimes in the form of tumors.

Furthermore, treatment outcomes vary greatly and, in many instances, leukemia will eventually resurface after a period of remission.

How Can Marijuana Help?
Countless studies have implicated medical marijuana in fighting numerous forms of cancer, including cancers of the lung, breast, prostate, pancreas and many more.

Marijuana’s widespread medical applications have been attributed to the endocannabinoid system – the body’s natural cannabinoid system. As it turns out, cannabinoid receptors have been found in most parts of the body, including white blood cells. This has led researchers to investigate the role of marijuana in treating leukemia, already revealing promising findings

One of the earliest studies to document marijuana’s potential in fighting leukemia was published in 2002 by a team of researchers in Virginia. The study showed that THC – along with other cannabinoids – was effective in inducing apoptosis (programmed cell death) in a variety of human leukemia and lymphoma cell lines. The study also found that THC could inhibit the growth of lymphoma tumors in mice, 25% of which were reportedly cured.

Other studies have provided confirmation of THC’s ability to fight cancer in human leukemia cell lines. A study published in 2005 by researchers in the U.K. showed that THC could elicit its effects as early as 6 hours after administration as well as induce cell death in all 3 leukemia cell lines that were studied. Interestingly, the study found that the effects of THC were independent of cannabinoid receptor activity, suggesting that the cancer-fighting action of cannabinoids may occur through a number of mechanisms.

Besides THC, researchers have also investigated the effects of CBD – a non-psychoactive compound that is also found in marijuana. For example, a study published in 2006 found that CBD was able to kill cancer cells in both human leukemia cells and animal models of leukemia. The authors of the study noted that CBD could provide a more selective method of treatment, since its actions seemed to be primarily facilitated by CB2 receptors, which are mostly found in the immune system.

Together, the results from this study reveal that cannabidiol… may be a novel and highly selective treatment for leukemia.

Excerpt from Cannabidiol-Induced Apoptosis in Human Leukemia Cells: A Novel Role of Cannabidiol in the Regulation of p22phox and Nox4 Expression (2006)

Finally, some studies have even suggested a synergetic cancer-fighting effect when THC and chemotherapy agents are administered together. A study published in 2008 found that THC could sensitize leukemia cells to chemotherapy agents, leading to higher rates of cell death than either form of treatment could achieve on its own.

The current study has reinforced a possible application for THC in a cancer therapy setting, not only as a single agent… but in combination with chemotherapy agents.

Excerpt from Enhancing the in vitro cytotoxic activity of Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol in leukemic cells through a combinatorial approach (2008)

What This Means For Your Health
Numerous studies seem to show that medical marijuana can not only provide relief from cancer-related pain and nausea, but may even be able to fight the disease itself.

On the other hand, while evidence from preclinical studies seems quite promising, it’s important to note that no clinical trials have been conducted so far. As a result, it is impossible to say for certain whether marijuana’s ability to kill leukemia cells can be replicated in actual practice.

Still, the devastating nature of cancer has led many patients to experiment with alternative forms of treatment, regardless of professional opinions. For these patients, preliminary evidence may be enough for medical marijuana to be given careful consideration.

And so far, research seems to show that both CBD and THC can be remarkably effective at killing leukemia cells, albeit in cell cultures and animal models.

How Can Cannabis Help Cancer?
Cannabis contains at least 85 different types of cannabinoids, the active chemicals that create drug-like effects throughout the body. The impact of these cannabinoids in treating cancer symptoms as well as the side effects of cancer therapies is so favorable, cannabinoids are synthesized for legal, prescription use. Dronabinol and Nabilone/Cesamet, two synthetic pill forms of THC, are FDA-approved and currently being used to treat nausea and vomiting associated with chemo.

Cannabinoids that are known to benefit people living with cancer include CBC, CBD, CBDa, CBG, THC, and THCa. Cannabidiol (CBD) is known to relieve pain, lower inflammation, and decrease anxiety without the “high” of THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. In Canada, a cannabis extract containing THC and CBD called Nabiximols/Sativex is approved for pain relief in patients with advanced cancer and multiple sclerosis.

According to the U.S. government’s National Cancer Institute, other effects of cannabinoids include anti-inflammatory activity, blocking cell growth, preventing the growth of blood vessels that supply tumors, fighting viruses, and relieving muscle spasms.

NCI also acknowledges that inhaled cannabis is attributed to improved mood and sense of well-being. Studies suggest cannabis can be used for symptom management in cancer patients by preventing vomiting, stimulating appetite, providing pain relief, and improving sleep as well as inhibiting the growth of certain types of tumors.

Other studies leading scientists down promising avenues of cancer treatment include:

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