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Cancer treatment and marijuana have long gone hand-in-hand, as cancer patients use cannabis to stimulate appetite, relieve nausea, and improve sleep while they undergo therapy.

But now, a group of central Pennsylvania researchers say they’re uncovering the power of marijuana to actually slow the growth of cancer cells. Though very preliminary, their findings mirror hopeful research elsewhere pointing to the potential of marijuana to actually fight cancer, instead of simply ameliorating the side effects of treatment.

10 cannabis compounds fighting cancer

Researchers from Penn State College of Medicine examined the interaction of cancer cells with synthetic derivatives of 370 medical marijuana compounds. Ten of those compounds “were fairly effective against all colon cancer cell lines,” reported Department of Pharmacology Chair Kent Vrana.

The next step is honing the compounds’ potency and effectiveness in battling cancer cells. “In terms of these specialized chemicals, they probably wouldn’t become true drugs for another five to 10 years,” Vrana said. Researchers suspect that the compounds could work against other cancer types, such as neuroblastoma, he added.

A new frontier in cancer treatment?

Can cannabinoids actually halt the progress of cancer? Researchers are intrigued.

“To date, cannabinoids have been allowed in the palliative medicine due to their analgesic and antiemetic effects, but increasing number of preclinical studies indicates their anticancer properties,” noted Polish researchers in a 2018 brief published in “Cancer Medicine.”

Cells know when they can no longer function efficiently. When it’s time to go, they trigger their “apoptic pathways” as a means to die. Cannabinoids might trigger those apoptic pathways, raising the intriguing possibility that medical marijuana could trick cancer cells into killing themselves.

The body’s cannabinoid receptors can also halt the first phase of a cell’s lifecycle, known as Growth 1 or G1. Could the cannabinoids in marijuana jumpstart those receptors into killing cancer cells before they grow and release toxins that poison their neighboring normal cells?

The Polish researchers also noted “an interesting idea” of combining cannabinoids with conventional anticancer drugs, for synergistic benefits that inhibit cell growth in pancreatic cancer and glioblastoma. Others cite the potential of cannabis to bond with cannabinoid receptors and stop cancer cells from dividing, prevent new blood vessels from growing into tumors, and speeding up a process known as autophagy that, like apoptosis, can lead to cell death.

Pennsylvania leading the way in cancer research

Penn State College of Medicine is partnering with one of three firms approved in June 2019 to grow medical marijuana for research by the Pennsylvania Department of Health. The initiative marked the nation’s first research program for medical marijuana, targeting the 21 serious medical conditions that qualify Pennsylvanians for medical marijuana ID cards.

“This research is essential to providing physicians with more evidence-based research to make clinical decisions for their patients,” said Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Rachel Levine when the licensees were announced. “It is the cornerstone of our program and the key to our clinically-based, patient-focused program for those suffering with cancer, PTSD, and other serious medical conditions.”

Penn State College of Medicine is partnering with PA Options for Wellness to investigate the risks and benefits of marijuana extracts for medicinal purposes, focusing initially on pain management and anti-cancer activity. The partnership “places the commonwealth of Pennsylvania at the forefront of promoting high-quality research on medical marijuana,” Vrana said.

PA Options for Wellness will help fund the College of Medicine’s studies into the benefits of cannabinoids and medical marijuana. The College of Medicine, in turn, will help PA Options for Wellness determine optimal types of marijuana extracts.

The Department of Health also approved the research applications of Agronomed Biologics LLC, partnering with Drexel University College of Medicine, Philadelphia, and MLH Explorations LLC, affiliated with Thomas Jefferson University’s Sidney Kimmel Medical College, Philadelphia.

As many scientists and doctors note, research is in its early phase, and promising findings from animal and laboratory studies don’t always correlate to human benefits. However, more is becoming known, especially as federal and state governments ease restrictions on marijuana production and research. In time, it’s possible that cannabis will find its place in the realm of cancer-fighting drugs, promising new life for generations to come.