The main psychoactive ingredient in cannabis – tetrahydrocannabinol – could be used to reduce tumor growth in cancer patients, according to an international research team.
Previous studies have suggested that cannabinoids, of which tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is one, have anti-cancer properties. In 2009, researchers at Complutense University in Spain found that THC induced the death of brain cancer cells in a process known as “autophagy.”
The researchers found that administering THC to mice with human tumors initiated autophagy and caused the growth of the tumors to decrease. Two human patients with highly aggressive brain tumors who received intracranial administration of THC also showed similar signs of autophagy, upon analysis.
The team behind the new study – co-led by Complutense University and the University of Anglia (UEA) in the UK – claims to have discovered previously unknown “signaling platforms” that allow THC to shrink tumors.
The researchers induced tumors in mice using samples of human breast cancer cells. When the tumors were targeted with doses of THC, the researchers found that two cell receptors were particularly associated with an anti-tumor response.
“THC, the major active component of marijuana, has anti-cancer properties. This compound is known to act through a specific family of cell receptors called cannabinoid receptors,” says Dr. Peter McCormick, from UEA’s School of Pharmacy.
However, the team is unsure which receptor is the most responsible for the anti-tumor effects.
Dr. McCormick says that there has been a “great deal of interest” in understanding the molecular mechanisms behind how marijuana influences cancer pathology. This has been accompanied by a drive in the pharmaceutical industry to synthesize a medical version of the drug that retains the anti-cancer properties.
“By identifying the receptors involved we have provided an important step towards the future development of therapeutics that can take advantage of the interactions we have discovered to reduce tumor growth,” says Dr. McCormick.
“Our research uses an isolated chemical compound and using the correct concentration is vital. Cancer patients should not use cannabis to self-medicate, but I hope that our research will lead to a safe synthetic equivalent being available in the future.”