• Unlocking a Cure for Cancer – With Pot

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    Who
    could imagine that cannabis might one day offer hope as a cure for
    cancer? The United States government, that's who.

    For
    the past 30 years, U.S. officials have willfully ignored clinical
    research indicating that marijuana can inhibit the growth of certain
    type of malignant tumors. However, the recent publication of a trio
    of clinical studies and a pair of scientific reviews have effectively
    blown the lid off "Cancergate," and revealed that pot's
    medical value may be far greater than ever presumed.

    THE
    EMERGING EVIDENCE

    Last
    year, five scientific journals published prominent articles trumpeting
    cannabinoids (compounds in marijuana) as potential anti-cancer agents.

    These
    include:

    • Clinical
      trial data published in January 2003 issue of the Journal
      of the American Society of Clinical Investigation that found
      cannabinoids significantly inhibit skin tumor growth in mice.
      Investigators of the study concluded, "The present data
      indicate that local cannabinoids administration may constitute
      an alternative therapeutic approach for the treatment of non-melanoma
      skin cancer."
    • Clinical
      trial data published in the March 2003 issue of The FASEB
      Journal that found that the "local administration of
      a non-psychoactive cannabinoid inhibits angiogenesis (tissue
      growth) of malignant gliomas (brain tumors)."
    • A clinical
      review in the October 2003 issue of the prestigious journal
      Nature Reviews Cancer that concluded that cannabinoids'
      "favorable drug safety profile" and proven ability
      to inhibit tumor growth make them desirable agents in the treatment
      of cancer. According to the review's author, tumors inhibited
      by cannabinoids include: lung carcinoma, glioma, thyroid epithelioma,
      lymphoma/leukemia, skin carcinoma, uterus carcinoma, breast
      carcinoma, prostate carcinoma, and neuroblastoma (a malignant
      tumor originating in the autonomic nervous system or the adrenal
      medulla and occurring chiefly in infants and young children).
    • Clinical
      trial data published in the November 2003 issue of the Journal
      of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics that found
      the administration of the cannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD) inhibits
      the growth of human glioma cells both in vitro (e.g., a petri
      dish) and in animals in a dose-dependent manner. Investigators
      concluded, "Non-psychoactive CBD produce[s] a significant
      antitumor activity both in vitro and in vivo, thus suggesting
      a possible application of CBD as an antineoplastic agent (something
      which prevents the growth of malignant cells.)"
    • And finally,
      a clinical review in the December 2003 issue of the journal
      Expert Opinion on Therapeutic Targets that summarized
      "the demonstrated antitumor actions of cannabinoids,"
      and elaborated on "possible avenues for the future development
      of cannabinoids as antitumor agents."

    AND
    SUBSEQUENT MEDIA BLACKOUT

    Despite
    these stunning findings, media coverage of them in North America
    has been virtually non-existent. As noted by Richard Cowan, editor
    of the website MarijuanaNews.com, "The New York Times,
    The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times all ignored
    this story, even though its newsworthiness is indisputable: a benign
    substance occurring in nature destroys deadly brain tumors."

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

    U.S.
    KNEW IN '74… AND AGAIN IN '96!

    This
    wasn't always the case. In fact, the first ever 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, immortalized in an August 18, 1974 Washington Post
    newspaper feature, were that "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 – study 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 one year later after a draft copy of its
    findings were leaked in 1997 to the journal AIDS Treatment News,
    which in turn forwarded the story to the national media.

    Nevertheless,
    in the nearly eight years since the completion of the National Toxicology
    trial, the U.S. government has yet to fund a single additional study
    examining pot's potential as an anti-cancer agent.

    SCIENCE
    IGNORED NO MORE

    Fortunately,
    researchers at Madrid, Spain's Complutense University, School of
    Biology have generously picked up where U.S. researchers so abruptly
    left off. In 1998, the research team – led by investigator Manuel
    Guzman – discovered that THC can selectively induce program cell
    death in brain tumor cells without negatively impacting the surrounding
    healthy cells. Then in 2000, Guzman's team 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. A commentary to the study noted
    that the results were the first to convincingly demonstrate that
    cannabis-based treatments may successfully combat cancer.

    Today,
    Guzman believes that enough favorable clinical evidence exists supporting
    pot's anti-cancer properties to warrant clinical trials in humans.
    "The scientific community has gained substantial knowledge
    of the palliative and anti-tumor actions of cannabinoids during
    the past few years," Guzman wrote in the October 2003 issue
    of Nature Reviews Cancer. "Anti-tumor compounds should
    selectively affect tumor cells [and] it seems that cannabinoids
    can do this, as they kill [malignant] tumor cells but do not affect
    their non-transformed counterparts and might even protect them from
    cell death. … As cannabinoids are relatively safe compounds, it
    would be desirable that clinical trials using cannabinoids … could
    accompany [ongoing] laboratory studies to allow us to use these
    compounds in the treatment of cancer." Guzman concludes the
    article by noting that the Spanish Ministry of Health recently approved
    a human clinical trial – the first ever – aimed at investigating
    the effects of intracranially administered THC on the life expectancy
    of volunteers suffering from malignant brain tumors.

    "Cannabinoid
    research continues to show tremendous potential in the treatment
    of cancer," summarizes University of Southern California professor
    Mitch Earleywine, author of the book Understanding
    Marijuana: A New Look at the Scientific Evidence
    . However,
    he laments that the "vast majority of this work originates
    outside the United States, often in countries that lack our economic
    and scientific advantages. Let's hope that our drug policy won't
    stymie the battle against the second leading cause of death in America."

    Indeed.
    Let's not add a potential treatment for cancer to the ever-growing
    list of victims of pot prohibition.

    August
    17, 2004

    Paul Armentano [send him mail]
    is the senior policy analyst for the NORML Foundation
    in Washington, DC.

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