If you have breast cancer, you may have considered the use of "medical marijuana" at some point during your chemo treatment. Smoking marijuana has provided some women with relief from the nausea and vomiting that can accompany chemo, relief that the range of normal side effect drugs weren’t able to give. Some states permit the legal use of medical marijuana; most don’t. Nevertheless, most women who want to try marijuana seem to be able to get it. Personally, I didn’t experience any severe problems with nausea. But I was astounded at the number of people who, prior to treatment, offered to get me a supply if I thought I needed it
Now, doctors at the California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute in San Francisco have released a study, in the current issue of Molecular Cancer Therapeutics, that may in the future open the door to a much more critical use of marijuana: stopping the spread of metastatic breast cancer. It seems that a compound found in cannabis (the scientific name for marijuana), CBD, has been shown (in the lab) to stop the human gene Id-1 from directing cancer cells to multiply and spread.
California Pacific Senior researcher Pierre-Yves Desprez, in an interview with HealthDay News, noted that the Id-1 genes "are very bad. They push the cells to behave like embryonic cells and grow. They go crazy, they proliferate, they migrate. We need to be able to turn them off."
Desprez and fellow researcher Sean D. McAllister joined forces just two years ago. Desprez had been studying the Id-1 gene for 12 years; McAllister was a cannabis expert, but not involved in cancer research. Together they found that Id-1 is the "orchestra conductor" that directs breast cancer cells to grow and spread. And that CBD inhibits Id-1; it turns it off, puts it to sleep, pick your metaphor. Bottom line, it neutralizes it. And the cancer stops spreading.
Both researchers pointed out that CBD is non-toxic and non-psychoactive. In other words, patients wouldn’t get high taking it. And its non-toxicity is an important attribute; Desprez and McAllister predict that, to be effective, patients might have to take CBD for several years. They also cautioned that smoking marijuana isn’t going to cure metastatic breast cancer; the level of CBD necessary to inhibit Id-1 simply can’t be obtained that way.
While studies are still very much in the preliminary stages, it’s interesting to think that a plant that has been used medicinally for nearly 5,000 years may in the future be a key element in controlling cancer. As recently as 1937 (when it was outlawed in the U.S.), marijuana ("cannabis sativa") was being touted as an analgesic, anti-emetic, narcotic, and sedative.
Parke-Davis, once America’s oldest and largest drug manufacturer (and now a division of drug giant Pfizer), offered "Fluid Extract Cannabis" via catalogs. Until the invention of aspirin in the mid-1800s, cannabis was the civilized world’s main pain reliever. Now it’s illegal. Here’s hoping that someday soon cannabis returns, this time as a successful treatment for metastatic breast cancer.
PJ Hamel is senior digital content editor and food writer at King Arthur Flour, and a James Beard award-winning author. A 16-year breast cancer survivor, her passion is helping women through this devastating disease. She manages a large and active online survivor support network based at her local hospital and shares her wisdom and experience with the greater community via HealthCentral.com.