Medical cannabis could kill cancer cells, according to scientists at The University of Newcastle, Australia

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Bethan Rose Jenkins, Cannabis News Writer/Editorial

A joint collaboration between the University of Newcastle and Hunter Medical Research Institute have shown that medicinal cannabis when modified may reduce the growth of or even kill cancer cells. 

The scientists drew up their conclusions after investigating the use of medical cannabis as a cancer treatment; as opposed to a method of partial symptomatic relief. One of the most promising findings of the Australian study was that the plant managed to tackle cancer cell proliferation without harming any surrounding normal cells.

Cannabis containing high levels of the non-psychoactive cannabinoid CBD (cannabidiol) proves to be the most effective at treating patients with  leukaemia and paediatric brainstem glioma. Psychotropic THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) varieties were also put to the test, but CBD came out as the real cancer killer.

“The CBD variety looks to have greater efficacy, low toxicity and fewer side-effects, which potentially makes it an ideal complementary therapy to combine with other anti-cancer compounds,” wrote the researchers, who tested cannabis containing less than one percent THC; produced by biotech company Australian Natural Therapeutics Group (ANTG). 

Australian study on medical cannabis for cancer funded by acclaimed research institutes

This study on medical cannabis for cancer would not have been possible without funding from the ANTG and HMRI, of which was provided through the Sandi Rose Foundation.

“We are very pleased to see three years of collaboration with UON and HMRI deliver such exciting findings in the fight against cancer. ANTG remains committed to its patient-centric mission of understanding the massive therapeutic potential of medicinal cannabis,” said the CEO of Australian Natural Therapeutics Group, Matthew Cantelo. “We thank Matt Dun and the team for such encouraging insights into anti-cancer properties of our Australian grown CBD strain, Eve. We are looking forward to moving forward to the next stage of the study and continuing to develop effective, safe and consistent cannabis medicines for Australian patients.”

A specialist researcher from the University of Newcastle, Dr. Matt Dun was a Defeat DIPG Chadtough New Investigator (2020-2021), and National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Emerging Leadership Fellow (2020-2024).

Medical cannabis treatments could improve quality of life for cancer patients

Researchers partook in this study on medical cannabis for cancer alongside expert Dr. Matt Dun. The plant sourced from ANTG named “Eve” is a low-THC variety enriched with high levels of CBD.

“ANTG wanted me to test it against cancer, so we initially used leukaemia cells and were really surprised by how sensitive they were. At the same time, the cannabis didn’t kill normal bone marrow cells, nor normal healthy neutrophils [white blood cells],” said Dr. Dun. “We then realized there was a cancer-selective mechanism involved, and we’ve spent the past couple of years trying to find the answer,” he added. The trial’s findings were unveiled in the international journal Cancers. In addition to this, Dr Dun and his team of researchers also delved into  a literature review of over 150 academic papers that explored two of the cannabis plant’s primary cannabinoids THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) and CBD (cannabidiol) and their potential anti-cancer effects, side effects and health advantages for consumers.

Dr. Dun noted how numerous global trials into cannabis formulations are ongoing, but treatment options are stifled by the fact that THC-containing medications may result in a patient being told he or she cannot drive or operate heavy machinery afterwards. Moreover, many doctors are against prescribing children with mind-altering substances like THC.

“We need to understand the mechanism so we can find ways to add other drugs that amplify the effect, and week by week we’re getting more clues. It’s really exciting and important if we want to move this into a therapeutic,” Dr Dun explains, adding that his team are optimistic their work will help banish the “stigma behind prescribing cannabis, particularly varieties that have minimal side-effects, especially if used in combination with current standard-of-care therapies and radiotherapy.” 

However, until this time, he advises patients to continue reaching out to their normal medical practitioner. The next phase of this Australian study on medical cannabis for cancer will focus on what affects the sensitivity of cancer cells.