Recently, the conversation about marijuana has shifted from “bashing” weed as a recreational drug to praising its miracle qualities when used for medicinal purposes. The scientific community feels more confident than ever before prescribing medical marijuana as a treatment for life-threatening diseases, like cancer, and other ailments that cause chronic pain. Despite the boost in confidence, marijuana has rarely been cited as an actual cure for these ailments, until now.
A preliminary study conducted by Israeli scientists found that cannabis may help slow the growth of certain cancerous tumors, namely brain and breast cancer tumors, and may even eradicate them completely. The study, conducted by Dr. David Meiri and his team at the Technion – Israel’s Institute of Technology over the last year, focused on the healing properties of the plant, with hopes that it may one day be used as a cancer cure.
“There is a large body of scientific data which indicates that cannabinoids specifically inhibit cancer cell growth and promote cancer cell death,” Meiri explained to Haaretz. “In addition to active cannabinoids, cannabis plants also contain a multitude of other therapeutic agents, such as terpenoids and flavonoids that are usually present in small quantities, but can have beneficial therapeutic effects, especially as synergistic compounds to cannabinoids.”
A growing industry
The project at the Technion is part of a joint research agreement with Cannabics Pharmaceuticals, an American pharmaceutical company that specializes in the development and commercialization of cannabis products ranging from drugs and therapies to food supplements. Cannabics’ flagship product, which is still patent pending, is Cannabics SR—a capsule designed specifically for cancer patients as a palliative care treatment. Drug companies in the past have shied away from investing heavily in producing and patenting marijuana products, namely due to the fact that it is a controlled substance, but also because it’s difficult to patent products from a natural plant, let alone all of its different strands and permutations. Cannabics SR is an example of the changing sentiments in the pharmaceutical industry regarding cannabis products and their future importance.
While preparing for their launch in the US and EU, the company plans to start another project at the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa soon, which will study the effect of cannabis capsules on typical symptoms, like a loss of appetite and weight loss, in cancer patients.
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While Dr. Meiri notes it is too early to draw definitive conclusions, he and his colleagues have seen some intriguing results. For example, they recently managed to target brain cancer cells, forcing them to “commit suicide” (a phenomenon called apoptosis) and have seen comparable results with breast cancer cells. Cancer cells are notorious for being able to evade the various mechanisms of cell death, which makes this an important finding. The goal now is to find more types of cancer cells that cannabis can “kill off” in the same way.
“Many businesspeople deal with and say things about cannabis. It seems some of them are overdoing it. I think it is now the turn of science to put things in order and find out how it helps, who it helps and exactly how it does so,” Meiri says.
Scientists continue to conduct studies using an estimated 50 different varieties of cannabis produced in Israel, measuring its effects on 200 different types of cancer cells. The promising results could be a major breakthrough in future cancer prevention, and bode well for cannabis’s positive stigma in the scientific and medical communities, though the study is still in its very early stages.