Science Uncover How Cannabis Might Help Cure Cancer
The Power of the Plant
By Dr Julie Moltke
Let me introduce to you the Israeli cannabis and cancer expert Dr Dedi Meiri :
One mild evening in mid-May I found myself walking through the impressive doors leading to The Royal Society of Medicine near busy Oxford Circus to attend a long-anticipated talk by Dr David (Dedi) Meiri, an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Biology at the Technion, Haifa, Israel. Israel is a veteran when it comes to cannabis research; THC was first isolated by Israeli Professor Raphael Mechoulam in 1964, and medicinal cannabis has been legal since the early 1990s for certain groups of patients like cancer patients and those with pain-related illnesses such as Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease.
Presently, Dr Dedi Meiri and his team investigate the therapeutic potential of the 144 phytocannabinoids found in the Cannabis plant (including the more well-known THC and CBD), focusing on their effect on cancer cells and other diseases. Dr Meiri is currently running the “Cannabis Database Project” and a dozen clinical trials covering ailments from epilepsy and pain management to colon disease and cancer treatment. He is collaborating with marijuana and hemp growers, major cannabis manufacturers and distributors alongside clinicians and patients to revolutionise cannabis treatment.
Dr Meiri has recently revealed some of the most exciting research results when it comes to cannabis and the treatment of cancer. During his ninety minutes long talk, the eager audience learned about the properties of cancer cells and got an insight into the complicated world of cancer research and of cannabis as a treatment for epilepsy. It left me with a lot of hope, a bunch of new questions, and the firm belief that when it comes to the medicinal benefits of cannabis, we have only scratched the surface. I will now take you through some of the most essential points in plain English:
What is cancer?
A healthy cell is like a loyal soldier in a unit; it fights with the unit of cells it is in, and if needed, it dies with the great purpose of saving the unit and the bigger army. In medical language, this process is called apoptosis; a programmed cell death to make sure that damaged or dysfunctional cells “commit suicide”. Like a soldier deserting from his unit, cells can sometimes mutate and escape apoptosis. This is when it becomes dangerous. As an example, a lung-cell can through mutation gain the ability to multiply and eventually to migrate: these cells are by definition cancer cells. Through the blood-stream, the cell can leave the lungs and settle down in some new exciting environment, let’s say the liver, where it grows bigger. You now have metastatic cancer – which translates into a high risk of not surviving the cancer disease.
Dr Dedi Meiri explained why cannabis has such a wide range of physical effects
Let me take you on a guided tour of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) to explain why cannabis has been proposed to do everything from reducing pain and seizures to increasing appetite and affecting memory and immune function. When you unconsciously place your hand on a warm hub, the nerves at the end of the hand that register pain will signal to the muscles of your arm to move, and the ECS will in turn signal to reduce the pain perception. The ECS can also make you feel hungry when you smell newly baked bread, or alter your mood and make your muscles relax, among many other things. The endocannabinoid system is making sure that the body is staying within a narrow range of working conditions, and it is this system that the different phytocannabinoids are working on.
The endocannabinoid system is controlled by a group of chemical compounds called endocannabinoids. There are more than a hundred different endocannabinoids naturally produced in the body, and any effect mediated by the ECS will be initiated by these neurotransmitters. Because the phytocannabinoids resembles the endocannabinoids, they can activate the ECS. Feeling confused? To simplify it, the ECS that controls a whole bunch of essential functions in the body can be altered by cannabis, and this is why it has so many different effects.
What do Dr Dedi Meiri and his team do in the lab?
About four years ago, Dr Meiri read a scientific paper about how cannabis had been shown to block the migration of breast cancer cells which essentially means that cancer could theoretically not spread to other tissues in the body. With his background in both cell and plant biology, his curiosity and passion were awoken; Since then, Dr Meiri and his team have been investigating how cannabinoids work on different types of cancer cells. This is a lot more complicated than it sounds, as cancer covers a vast range of diseases. As an example, there are a dozen genetically different types of breast cancers, which means that some treatment might work on one breast cancer patient but not on the other.
Isolating cancer cells and applying cannabis extract to the cells
Dr Meiri and his team isolated cells from multiple different types and subtypes of cancers and then applied a cannabis extract to the cells. They would not just apply the whole plant extract but use the smallest combination of cannabinoids that would cause a reduction of the number of cancer cells. This leaves us with an almost endless mix of cancer cells and cannabinoids, and these results are all being tracked in the “Cannabis database project”.
To further complicate things we know more than 800 different strains of the cannabis plant and Dr Meiri has shown that in some cases the cannabinoid from one strain can work on one type of cancer while the same cannabinoid from another strain has no effect at all. Lastly, if the conditions which the cannabis plant is grown under change, this can lead to a change in the cannabinoids found in the plant. As you can see, we are looking at a puzzle with a lot of missing parts.
Will cannabis become part of cancer treatment in the future?
During the talk, Dr Meiri revealed that his team has found a combination of three cannabinoids that could almost completely eliminate one type of leukaemia, leaving clinicians and patients with the hope that cannabis can eventually be part of the big tool-box of cancer treatments. In the future, cancer treatment will almost certainly become increasingly personalized according to the specific patients’ genetic trades and the cancer subtype; cannabis might very well be one little part in the big puzzle.
The story about CBD and treatment of childhood epilepsy
One of the more popular and approved applications of cannabis is for two rare kinds of treatment-resistant childhood epilepsy called Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome. It was approved for treatment in Israel in 2010, after the appearance of the fantastic story about a little girl in Colorado named Charlotte who from having 400 seizures a day became seizure free when using a certain kind of cannabis (see our article about Charlotte’s Web). The treatment in question is a high dose of cannabidiol, also known as CBD, along with low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
We are talking about very sick children: some may have many hundreds of seizures a day and no quality of life at all. Children who do not respond to first-line anti-epileptic drugs have the last option to try cannabis drugs, which is proven to help 37% of children with treatment-resistant epilepsy. What about the remaining 63% of these children? Without treatment, they are very likely to die prematurely.
To help these children, Dr Dedi Meiri decided to experiment with different cannabis strains, but with the same CBD: THC ratio. Changing the cannabis strain proved to help 30% of children who did not respond to the first strain. 30% who’s life was changed and potentially saved by taking essentially the same drug but from a slightly different cannabis strain.
Cannabis is used to treat severe autism in Israeli boys
Dr Meiri and his team have another exciting group of patients who seem to benefit from cannabis: Boys with a severe form of autism. In this group of patients, their aggressive behaviour symptoms, speech difficulties and a wide range of other symptoms improve using a specific cannabis strain. You can imagine that havoc was released when the stock of this particular stain was suddenly out and Dr Meiri had hundreds of desperate parents on the phone. Surprisingly, treating girls the same way have no effect on their symptoms, and we are again reminded that when it comes to cannabis, hemp and marijuana in medicine, we have only seen the tip of the iceberg.
After a lot of questions and too little time, Dr Dedi Meiri left the beautiful old building, leaving the audience, a tiny bit more clever, a lot more confused, and with a feeling of hope, mixed with realization that it will be many years to come before we have the full answers to the medical potential of the famous plant.