I turned 80 in June, and my father died of prostate cancer at the age of 81, so I have more than a casual interest in the subject. Of course, when he died 29 years ago, we did not know what we know now, because the federal government has done everything possible to block research on marijuana.
“Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men (aside from non-melanoma skin cancer) and the second most common cause of cancer death in the United States. Even with widespread screening with prostate-specific antigen (PSA), still 5% of cases present with metastatic lesions at the time of diagnosis. Because of all this, there is a fundamental necessity to search for and find new and novel treatments to this common pathology. Cannabis and cannabinoids have often been an issue of much polemics in the realm of science, but since the discovery of cannabinoid receptors in rat brain in the late 1980s, there has been a growing interest in the research of these compounds and our knowledge continues to expand. There has been experimental evidence that cannabinoids possess anti-androgenic proprieties.”
Dr. Dan Sperling, an MD who specializes in prostate cancer, has an excellent website in which he discusses the possible role of cannabis in preventing and treating prostate problems. It is worth noting that Dr. Sperling is a radiologist, not the sort of speciality that one would expect for such an enlightened view of plant-based medicine:
“Cannabis (marijuana, pot, weed, grass etc.) is a widely used recreational and medicinal drug. In fact, cannabis use dates far back in ancient times, probably for the same two purposes. Today, state laws in the U.S. are rapidly becoming more permissive less than a century after it was made illegal in 1937.
According to Ramos & Bianco (1912), “The plant contains many chemical compounds that have different pharmacological properties, varying in quantity and quality depending on the strain, culture, and storage conditions. In 1964, Mechoulam and colleagues found that delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) was the major psychoactive ingredient of cannabis.”[i] These compounds, including THC, are called cannabinoids, and 66 separate cannabinoids have been identified.
Cannabinoids produce their physical and psychological effects by interacting with specific receptors on cell surfaces that have an affinity for these compounds. There are two types of receptors:
Cannabinoid receptor type 1 (CB1) are mostly found in the brain, and also in the male and female reproductive systems. To a lesser extent, they exist in central and peripheral pain pathways (nerves) which may explain why pain relief is a benefit of cannabinoids, particularly THC.
Cannabinoid receptor type 2 (CB2) are primarily found in the immune system, and may be associated with anti-inflammatory and other therapeutic effects of cannabis.
Cannabis and prostate cancer
There has been both enthusiasm and caution about cannabis use and cancer. By mid-2015, 23 states had legalized medical marijuana, one of the primary uses being to ease the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation in cancer treatment. As described above, CB1 receptors play a key role in cancer pain relief.
See: What is CBD?
Now, as scientific research into the two types of cannabinoid receptors has progressed, understanding how cannabinoids interact with prostate cancer cells opens the possibility of using these compounds to restrict the activity, including the growth and spread, of prostate cancer itself.
How cannabis affects prostate cancer cells:
Research shows that prostate cancer cells have higher levels of expression of both CB1 and CB2 receptors than normal cells. To put it another way, the cancer cells have a greater affinity for cannabinoids than normal cells. Laboratory studies[ii] have demonstrated that when the cells are treated with a specific cannabinoids, three consequences occur:
In general, the cells became less viable and more prone to apoptosis (programmed cell death), and Androgen receptor activity on the cancer cell surfaces decreased (prostate cancer appears to be “fueled” by androgens, or male hormones). Two cannabinoids, THC and CBD, discourage the formation of tumor blood vessels (angiogenesis) needed by prostate cancer tumors to nourish themselves.[iii] A very extensive study was conducted by De Petrocellis et al. (2012)[iv] using both prostate cancer cells in lab containers and prostate cancer tumor cells implanted in mice. Non-THC cannabinoids were thus tested for their biochemical effects on individual cells as well as actual tumor behavior in live animals. The overall results were encouraging, with the authors suggesting that “non-THC cannabinoids, and CBD in particular, retard proliferation and cause apoptosis of PCC [prostate cancer cells] via a combination of cannabinoid receptor-independent, cellular and molecular mechanisms.”
With such promising research evidence that cannabinoids are destructive to prostate cancer cells, what is happening with actual prostate cancer patients? Not much, according to a prostate.net blog:
There are many stories of people who have used cannabis oil to shrink prostate cancer tumors, and many of the people had success combining the oil with traditional therapies to fight their cancer. The problem with getting hard data and studies is that United States laws make it challenging for clinical studies on the marijuana plant to take place. Plus, there seems to be a lack of funding for the research. The studies that have taken place tend to focus on symptoms (such as pain relief and nausea) rather than the efficacy of the cannabis oil to shrink cancer tumors.
Yet the research teams who have published their results with laboratory experiments, both in lab containers and animal studies, are clearly calling for clinical trials with patients. They point out that non-THC cannabinoids demonstrate properties that keep the cells from proliferating, spreading, building their own blood supply, and taking up androgens (male hormones). In addition, the De Petrocellis study found that under certain conditions, cannabinoids had a synergistic effect with chemotherapy (docetaxel) or hormone therapy (bicalutamide). Such features conjure visions of creative directions in prostate cancer treatment.
Ramos & Bianco explicitly describe a constructive scenario for prostate cancer patients with painful metastasis to the bone. As they state, cannabinoids “harbor analgesic properties that aid bone cancer pain, reduce opioid consumption, side effects, and dependence, as well as exhibiting anti-androgenic effects on experimental prostate cancer cells.”
Perhaps today’s trend of relaxing cannabis restrictions will open the path to human clinical trials, and the real value of cannabinoids in the treatment of prostate cancer will be revealed.”
There is a certain irony in the fact that the world is still ruled by old men who are inflicting themselves with unnecessary suffering because the cannot admit that cannabis prohibition has been a public health disaster.
However, knowing what we now know, we can finally take care of ourselves by doing what’s best for us in the end.
Richard Cowan is a former NORML National Director and author of the Top 5 Products for CBD Beginners.