Substance in cannabis ‘could boost pancreatic cancer treatments’
A substance found in cannabis plants might boost treatments for patients with pancreatic cancer, research in mice has suggested.
Cannabidiol, or CBD, is not psychoactive, meaning it does not produce feelings of being high in those who take it. It is extracted from hemp plants and is legal in the UK, although a CBD product must be licensed before it can be advertised as having health benefits. At present, there are no licensed CBD-only medicines in the UK, but it is being used in a number of clinical trials, including for treating psychosis.
Now scientists say CBD could boost the effect of drugs used to treat pancreatic cancer – a disease with a bleak prognosis. Only about 5% of those with the condition survive for five years, and around 80% die within a year of diagnosis.
“It is very aggressive, so it is very important to find new therapies for this cancer,” said Dr Riccardo Ferro, first author of the research from Queen Mary University of London.
While the latest study was conducted in mice, the team behind the research say that if the results are replicated in humans, the treatment could result in many patients having their lives extended by a matter of years.
Writing in the journal Oncogene, Ferro and colleagues from the UK, Italy and Australia describe how they carried out experiments both on cells in dishes and on mice that had been genetically modified to develop pancreatic cancer, to show that a gene known as GPR55 is involved in the growth and multiplication of pancreatic cancer cells. This gene gives rise to proteins that sit in cell membranes and detect various substances, including certain cannabis-derived chemicals. The team found about 26% of human pancreatic cancer samples showed raised levels of such receptors, suggesting an accumulation in cancer tissues – at least for some patients.
Among the subsequent experiments, the team took mice that had been genetically modified to develop pancreatic cancer and split them into four groups.
Ten mice were given CBD, eight were given the chemotherapy drug gemcitabine, seven were given both drugs, and nine were given a placebo.
Mice in the placebo group lasted for just under 19 days on average, while those in the CBD group lived for just over 25 days and those in the gemcitabine group for almost 28 days.
When the two drugs were combined, the effect was even more dramatic, extending the average survival to almost 53 days after starting treatment.
The team say the CBD blocks the receptors produced by the GPR55 gene, preventing them from interacting with other substances that promote the growth and multiplication of the cancer cells. What’s more, they found CBD hinders the development of resistance to gemcitabine.
However, others cautioned that as the study involved only a small number of mice, it is unclear whether the effects of CBD would also be seen in humans, and that it is unknown whether CBD might interact with other drugs taken by those with pancreatic cancer.
Dr Catherine Pickworth from Cancer Research UK said it was encouraging that researchers were looking into new ways to tackle pancreatic cancer, but that clinical trials are crucial and until there is evidence that CBD will help humans with the cancer, patients should be cautious.
“We don’t advise patients to use cannabis oil or any alternative therapies to treat cancer,” she said. “Some ‘natural’ remedies can interfere with medical treatment, so it’s really important that patients speak to their doctor before making any decisions.”
Cannabis, CBD oil and cancer
Cannabis is a plant and a class B drug. It affects people differently. It can make you feel relaxed and chilled but it can also make you feel sick, affect your memory and make you feel lethargic. CBD oil is a chemical found in cannabis.
- Cannabis has been used for centuries recreationally and as a medicine.
- It is illegal to possess or supply cannabis as it is a class B drug.
- Research is looking at the substances in cannabis to see if it might help treat cancer.
- There are anti sickness medicines that contain man-made substances of cannabis.
What are cannabis and cannabinoids?
Cannabis is a plant. It is known by many names including marijuana, weed, hemp, grass, pot, dope, ganja and hash.
The plant produces a resin that contains a number of substances or chemicals. These are called cannabinoids. Cannabinoids can have medicinal effects on the body.
The main cannabinoids are:
- Delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)
- Cannabidiol (CBD)
THC is a psychoactive substance that can create a ‘high’ feeling. It can affect how your brain works, changing your mood and how you feel.
CBD is a cannabinoid that may relieve pain, lower inflammation and decrease anxiety without the psychoactive ‘high’ effect of THC.
Different types of cannabis have differing amounts of these and other chemicals in them. This means they can have different effects on the body.
Cannabis is a class B drug in the UK. This means that it is illegal to have it, sell it or buy it.
CBD oil, cannabis oil and hemp oil
There are different types of oil made from parts of the cannabis plant. Some are sold legally in health food stores as a food supplement. Other types of oil are illegal.
CBD oil comes from the flowers of the cannabis plant and does not contain the psychoactive substance THC. It can be sold in the UK as a food supplement but not as a medicine. There is no evidence to support its use as a medicine.
Cannabis oil comes from the flowers, leaves and stalks of the cannabis plant. Cannabis oil often contains high levels of the psychoactive ingredient THC. Cannabis oil is illegal in the UK.
Hemp oil comes from the seeds of a type of cannabis plant that doesn’t contain the main psychoactive ingredient THC. Hemp seed oil is used for various purposes including as a protein supplement for food, a wood varnish and an ingredient in soaps.
Why people with cancer use it
Cannabis has been used medicinally and recreationally for hundreds of years.
There has been a lot of interest into whether cannabinoids might be useful as a cancer treatment. The scientific research done so far has been laboratory research, with mixed results, so we do not know if cannabinoids can treat cancer in people.
Results have shown that different cannabinoids can:
- cause cell death
- block cell growth
- stop the development of blood vessels – needed for tumours to grow
- reduce inflammation
- reduce the ability of cancers to spread
Scientists also discovered that cannabinoids can:
- sometimes encourage cancer cells to grow
- cause damage to blood vessels
Cannabinoids have helped with sickness and pain in some people.
This means a cannabis based product used to relieve symptoms.
Some cannabis based products are available on prescription as medicinal cannabis. The following medicines are sometimes prescribed to help relieve symptoms.
Nabilone is a drug developed from cannabis. It is licensed for treating severe sickness from chemotherapy that is not controlled by other anti sickness drugs. It is a capsule that you swallow whole.
Sativex is a cannabis-based medicine. It is licensed in the UK for people with Multiple Sclerosis muscle spasticity that hasn’t improved with other treatments. Sativex is a liquid that you spray into your mouth.
Researchers are looking into Sativex as a treatment for cancer related symptoms and for certain types of cancer.
How you have it
Cannabis products can be smoked, vaporized, ingested (eating or drinking), absorbed through the skin (in a patch) or as a cream or spray.
CBD oil comes as a liquid or in capsules.
Prescription drugs such as Nabilone can cause side effects. This can include:
- increased heart rate
- blood pressure problems
- mood changes
- memory problems
Cannabis that contains high levels of THC can cause panic attacks, hallucinations and paranoia.
There are also many cannabis based products available online without a prescription. The quality of these products can vary. It is impossible to know what substances they might contain. They could potentially be harmful to your health and may be illegal.
Research into cannabinoids and cancer
We need more research to know if cannabis or the chemicals in it can treat cancer.
Clinical trials need to be done in large numbers where some patients have the drug and some don’t. Then you can compare how well the treatment works.
Many of the studies done so far have been small and in the laboratory. There have been a few studies involving people with cancer.
Sativex and temozolomide for a brain tumour (glioblastoma) that has come back
In 2021, scientists reported the final results of a phase 1 study to treat people with recurrent glioblastoma (a type of brain tumour that has come back). The study looked at Sativex in combination with the chemotherapy drug temozolomide.
Researchers found that adding Sativex caused side effects, which included, vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, nausea and headache but patients found the side effects manageable.
They also observed that 83 out of 100 people (83%) were alive after one year using Sativex, compared to 44 out of 100 people (44%) taking the placebo.
However, this phase 1 study only involved 27 patients, which was too small to learn about any potential benefits of Sativex. The study wanted to find out if Sativex and temozolomide was safe to take by patients.
Researchers have now started a larger phase 2 trial called ARISTOCRAT, to find out if this treatment is effective and who might benefit from it. Speak to your specialist if you want to take part in a clinical trial.
Sativex and cancer pain
There are trials looking at whether Sativex can help with cancer pain that has not responded to other painkillers.
The results of one trial showed that Sativex did not improve pain levels. You can read the results of the trial on our clinical trials website.
Cancer and nausea and vomiting
A cannabis based medicine, Nabilone, is a treatment for nausea and vomiting.
A Cochrane review in 2015 looked at all the research available looking into cannabis based medicine as a treatment for nausea and sickness in people having chemotherapy for cancer. It reported that many of the studies were too small or not well run to be able to say how well these medicines work. They say that they may be useful if all other medicines are not working.
A drug called dexanabinol which is a man made form of a chemical similar to that found in cannabis has been trialled in a phase 1 trial. This is an early trial that tries to work out whether or not the drug works in humans, what the correct dose is and what the side effects might be. The results are not available yet. You can read about the trial on our clinical trials database.
Word of caution
Cannabis is a class B drug and illegal in the UK.
There are internet scams where people offer to sell cannabis preparations to people with cancer. There is no knowing what the ingredients are in these products and they could harm your health.
Some of these scammers trick cancer patients into buying ‘cannabis oil’ which they then never receive.
You could talk with your cancer specialist about the possibility of joining a clinical trial. Trials can give access to new drugs in a safe and monitored environment.
The science blog on our website has more information about cannabis and cancer.
NEW RESEARCH: Medicinal cannabis could improve survival rates of pancreatic cancer
The Cannabis plant has different components, it contains active ingredients called cannabinoids. One of these components is cannabidiol (CBD) which is the compound that does not make people feel ‘high’, unlike the component tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) which has psychoactive properties.
There has been research that shows that this part of the plant has some medical benefits, one of which is helping to stop cell growth in certain types of cancer.
The home secretary has already allowed specialist doctors in the UK to legally prescribe cannabis products and the use of cannabis for medical treatments has been approved to be used in the NHS by the end of this year.
About the study
The new study, looked at the impact of CBD on mice with the disease, receiving the common chemotherapy drug Gemcitabine .
The mice treated with this combination of drugs had a median average survival of 56 days, compared to 20 days for those left untreated, while mice receiving chemotherapy alone lived for a median 23.5 days.
The research, funded by Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund, is in the very early stages and still needs to be tested in humans which is likely to take some time. However, l ead researcher of the study, Professor Marco Falasca from Queen Mary University in London, says:
“Cannabidiol is already approved for use in clinics, which means we can quickly go on to test this in human clinical trials. If we can reproduce these affects in humans, cannabidiol could be in use in cancer clinics almost immediately.”
Lu Constable, Marketing and Communications Manager at Pancreatic Cancer Action says:
“Although this research is in it’s early stages, this is a really exciting and promising study. H opefully, in the future clinical trials (testing on humans) will provide insight into whether using CBD in combination with chemotherapy will help improve survival rates for pancreatic cancer patients.
We are really looking forward to seeing how this research will progress and ultimately, help pancreatic cancer patients.”
Ceridwen shares her experience with CBD oil
Ceridwen Maddock-Jones, Pancreatic Cancer Action supporter and pancreatic cancer patient, has been using Cannabis oil, she says:
“I put the paste into capsules with coconut oil and CBD oil… I also take drops of CBD and THC oil under my tongue.
CBD is thought to stop the progression of cancer and THC kills cancer cells, so taking the two together will hopefully offer maximum benefit, while the small doses throughout the day keeps them in my system.”
About pancreatic cancer
Pancreatic cancer is the UK’s fifth biggest cancer killer and is set to become one of the UKs top 4 cancer killers by 2026.
The 5-year survival rate for pancreatic cancer is less than 7% in the UK, this is the worst survival rate of any 22 common cancers. This could partly be due to the fact that pancreatic cancer can be resilient to some chemotherapy.
Currently, there is no early detection test for pancreatic cancer and the only cure is surgery with chemotherapy. Surgery is only possible if it is found early enough. Click here to read our blog Is pancreatic cancer curable?
Pancreatic Cancer Action’s primary focus is to improve early diagnosis. We do this by raising awareness amongst the public, providing free resources to healthcare professionals and funding early diagnosis research.