Cannabinoids and the Need for New Pancreatic Cancer Treatments

Researchers predict that pancreatic cancer will become the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States by 2030. With an urgent need for novel therapies, a new research review asks whether cannabinoids can be an effective treatment for pancreatic cancer.

The Growing Burden of Pancreatic Cancer

According to the CDC, cancer was the second leading cause of death—just behind heart disease—in 2017.

There are many types of cancers that contribute to this statistic—lung, breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer are usually on top. In fact, the American Cancer Society considers these the “big four” when it comes to cancer diagnoses.

However, demographic shifts in the United States and around the world are significantly affecting the way we think about healthcare. The U.S. population is growing older. This means cancer rates will continue to increase and the types of cancer we see most frequently diagnosed will likely change.

According to projections, researchers predict that deaths from pancreatic cancer will surpass those from breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers. By 2030 pancreatic cancer will become the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States behind lung cancer.

Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer is one of the most aggressive forms of cancer, with a one-year survival rate of 19% and five years survival rate of 5%. Therefore, it’s critical that researchers and doctors develop and improve treatments for cancer of the pancreas.

Cannabis and its Effect on Cancer

Civilizations have valued the therapeutic properties of the cannabis plant for hundreds if not thousands of years. More recently, research is starting to scientifically validate the medical utility of this valuable plant.

When it comes to cancer, doctors and patients have been interested in cannabis for some time. This interest is usually related to the plant’s ability to treat the negative side effects of chemotherapy like nausea, lethargy, and weight loss.

But emerging research points to a bigger role for cannabis and cannabinoids in cancer treatment.

For example, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive cannabinoid found in cannabis, can slow the growth of lung cancer cells. Several studies have also demonstrated that cannabinoids can have a significant effect on proliferation, migration, and death of cancer cells.

But what about pancreatic cancer?

Researchers from the University of Melbourne in Australia just published a new research review in the Journal of Pancreatic Cancer. The comprehensive review focuses on the effects of cannabinoids in cancer treatment with a focus on pancreatic cancer.

How Do Cannabinoids Affect Pancreatic Cancer?

Cannabinoid Receptors and Pancreatic Cancer

Interestingly, one study shows that the cannabinoid receptors CB1 and CB2 are present at higher levels in pancreatic cancer cells in comparison to healthy pancreatic cells. Previous research demonstrated that CB1 and CB2 receptors can regulate cell death in cancer cells.

This means that the increase in cannabinoid receptors in pancreatic cells could be promoting cell death. Enzymes that help process endocannabinoids, the body’s endogenous cannabinoid compounds which can activate cannabinoid receptors, are also higher in pancreatic cancer cells than normal pancreatic cells.

In contrast, another lesser studied cannabinoid receptor, GPR55 (for which CBD is an antagonist) promotes proliferation of pancreatic cancer cells. Getting rid of GPR55 signaling helps increase the effectiveness of chemotherapy treatment.

Synthetic Cannabinoids

Synthetic cannabinoids—molecules designed by researchers to mimic the effects of endogenous and cannabis-derived cannabinoids—also show promise. When synthetic cannabinoids interact with cannabinoid receptors, they cause cell death in pancreatic cancer cells.

Other synthetic cannabinoid compounds slow the proliferation and migration of pancreatic cancer cells.

Potential Clinical Relevance of CBD

The potential power of cannabinoids for the treatment of pancreatic cancer becomes even more apparent when combined with other therapies.

One study demonstrated that CBD can greatly enhance the ability of radiotherapy to kill pancreatic cancer cells. Another study showed similar outcomes for CBD combined with chemotherapy.

Final Thoughts

Emerging pre-clinical research demonstrates that cannabinoids can have a significant effect on the growth and progression of pancreatic cancer.

Cannabis-derived cannabinoids, synthetic cannabinoids, and even our own endogenous cannabinoids can help slow tumor growth, promote tumor cell death, and cut off tumor blood supply.

Both CBD and THC appear to slow cancer proliferation and promote cancer cell death. CBD, in particular, has potential clinical relevance: when combined with chemotherapy or radiotherapy, CBD promotes tumor cell death.

Unfortunately, no clinical studies in humans exist to confirm these results. Pancreatic cancer represents one of the most aggressive forms of cancer and its prevalence will only continue to rise as our population ages. The need for novel therapeutics is urgent, but cannabinoids represent a promising new avenue. Clinical studies focusing on the effectiveness of cannabinoids as a treatment for pancreatic cancer are seriously needed.

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