Drugs

Pot Shows Promise as Cancer Cure

Not familiar with clinical research about marijuana's potential anti-cancer properties? You're not alone.
Clinical research touted by the journal of the American Association for Cancer Research that shows marijuana's components can inhibit the growth of cancerous brain tumors is the latest in a long line of studies demonstrating the drug's potential as an anti-cancer agent. Not familiar with it? You're not alone.

Despite the value of these studies, both in terms of the treatment of life-threatening illnesses and as items of news – the latest being that performed by researchers at Madrid's Complutense University that found cannabis restricts the blood supply to glioblastoma multiforme tumors, an aggressive brain tumor that kills some 7,000 people in the United States per year – U.S. media coverage of them has been almost non-existent.

Why the blackout? For starters, all of these medical cannabis studies were conducted overseas. Secondly, not one of them has been acknowledged by the U.S. government.

This wasn't always the case. In fact, the first experiment documenting pot's anti-tumor effects took place in 1974 at the Medical College of Virginia at the behest of the U.S. government. The results of that study, reported in an Aug. 18, 1974, Washington Post newspaper feature, were that marijuana's psychoactive component, THC, "slowed the growth of lung cancers, breast cancers and a virus-induced leukemia in laboratory mice, and prolonged their lives by as much as 36 percent."

Despite these favorable preliminary findings, U.S. government officials banished the study, and refused to fund any follow-up research until conducting a similar – though secret – clinical trial in the mid-1990s. That study, conducted by the U.S. National Toxicology Program to the tune of $2 million concluded that mice and rats administered high doses of THC over long periods had greater protection against malignant tumors than untreated controls.

However, rather than publicize their findings, government researchers shelved the results, which only became public after a draft copy of its findings were leaked in 1997 to a medical journal which in turn forwarded the story to the national media.

However, in the eight years since the completion of the National Toxicology trial, the U.S. government has yet to fund a single additional study examining the drug's potential anti-cancer properties. Is this a case of federal bureaucrats putting politics over the health and safety of patients? You be the judge.

Fortunately, scientists overseas have generously picked up where U.S. researchers so abruptly left off. In 1998, a research team at Complutense's Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology discovered that THC can selectively induce program cell death in brain tumor cells without negatively impacting the surrounding healthy cells. Then in 2000, they reported in the journal Nature Medicine that injections of synthetic THC eradicated malignant gliomas (brain tumors) in one-third of treated rats, and prolonged life in another third by six weeks.

Last year, researchers at the University of Milan in Naples, Italy, reported in the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics that non-psychoactive compounds in marijuana inhibited the growth of glioma cells in a dose dependent manner, and selectively targeted and killed malignant cells through a process known as apoptosis.

And finally, this month, researchers reported that marijuana's constituents inhibited the spread of brain cancer in human tumor biopsies from patients who had failed standard cancer therapies.

Nevertheless, federal officials in this country have refused to express any interest in funding – or even acknowledging – this clinical research. By doing so, they are doing a disservice not only to the scientific process, but also to the health and well being of America's citizenry.
Paul Armentano is the senior policy analyst for the NORML Foundation in Washington, DC.
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