Scientists from Harvard University’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute have uncovered some welcome good news in the world’s fight against pancreatic cancer, a disease that’s predicted to become the second-leading culprit in cancer-related deaths by just 2020. It may only account for 3 percent of all cancers in America but it’s one-year survival rate of 20 percent and five-year survival rate lower than 8 percent has made it a high priority in the research of treatments, and the findings from Harvard scientists may even extend beyond patients of just pancreatic cancer.
In their study, published in the journal Frontiers of Oncology, researchers shared that a chemical found in cannabis has demonstrated “significant therapy potential” in treatment of the disease because it is capable of attacking cancer cells. The scientists developed a drug called FBL-03G, which is a derivative of a cannabis “flavonoid” — the name for a naturally-occurring compound found in plants, vegetables, and fruits. The discovery of flavonoids and their potential to have anti-inflammatory benefits dates back to 1986, and therefore scientists have long suspected the compound could have therapeutic potential. However, flavonoids apparently only make up just .14 percent of the cannabis plant, meaning research with it would only be possible with massive, massive quantities of the plant — entire fields of it, to be exact. Instead, researchers in Canada have been working to engineer the plant and create the massive quantities needed for the use of more flavonoids.
"The problem with these molecules is they are present in cannabis at such low levels, it's not feasible to try to engineer the cannabis plant to create more of these substances," says Steven Rothstein, who studies the molecular and genetic qualities of crop plants at the University of Guelph. "We are now working to develop a biological system to create these molecules, which would give us the opportunity to engineer large quantities.”
This development allowed the Harvard researchers to then test the therapeutic potential of one of these flavonoids, FBL-03G on pancreatic cancer cells.
“The most significant conclusion is that tumor-targeted delivery of flavonoids, derived from cannabis, enabled both local and metastatic tumor cell kill, significantly increasing survival from pancreatic cancer,” Ngwa told Yahoo Lifestyle. “This has major significance, given that pancreatic cancer is particularly refractory to current therapies.”
Of course, an effective way to combat any cancer cells would be a world-changing discovery. But the researchers also discovered that FBL-03G is capable of fighting other cancer cells as well. Many cases of pancreatic cancer are diagnosed and therefore treated in later stages, significantly impacting the severity of the illness by the time it’s discovered and shortening life expectancy following diagnosis.
“We were quite surprised that the drug could inhibit the growth of cancer cells in other parts of the body, representing metastasis, that were not targeted by the treatment,” says Ngwa. “This suggests that the immune system is involved as well, and we are currently investigating this mechanism.”
“If successfully translated clinically, this will have major impact in treatment of pancreatic cancer,” Ngwa added, who will now set out to complete pre-clinical studies by the end of 2020, hopefully setting the stage for testing treatment in humans.
Of course, this is not the first time scientists have looked into cannabis’ effects on treating cancer patients. According to the American Cancer Society, researchers have identified many of the different effects cannabinoids have on the human body, depending on which method is deployed for ingestion as well as which form they’re taken in. Much of this focuses on taking different strains by mouth or by smoking, which is often applied as a therapeutic treatment during cancer chemotherapy. We’ve long understood that cannabinoids are an effective replacement for pain medications thanks to clinical trials and tests, however, examining the effects of the compound on killing cancer cells is an entirely different avenue of research. “THC and other cannabinoids such as CBD slow growth and/or cause death in certain types of cancer cells growing in lab dishes,” says the American Cancer Society. “Some animal studies also suggest certain cannabinoids may slow growth and reduce the spread of some forms of cancer.”
But “While the studies so far have shown that cannabinoids can be safe in treating cancer, they do not show that they help control or cure the disease,” they warn. “Relying on marijuana alone as treatment while avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.”
“Nowadays, we observe an increasing public and scientific interest in the medical applications of Cannabis plants,” researchers wrote after in one published 2018 report. “Cannabinoids exhibit their action by a modulation of the signaling pathways crucial in the control of cell proliferation and survival. Many in vitro and in vivo experiments have shown that cannabinoids inhibit proliferation of cancer cells, stimulate autophagy and apoptosis, and have also a potential to inhibit angiogenesis and metastasis.”
There’s still much research to conduct on the exact role of the cannabinoid system in cancer development, the authors explained. “The upregulated expression of CB receptors and the elevated levels of endocannabinoids have been observed” in cancer cells in skin, prostate, and colon cancer, hepatocellular carcinoma, endometrial sarcoma, glioblastoma multiforme, meningioma and pituitary adenoma, Hodgkin lymphoma, chemically induced hepatocarcinoma, mantel cell lymphoma, but with insufficient data to conclude a clear connection between cannabinoid systems and cancer.
“Despite some inconsistent data, the main effect of cannabinoids in a tumor is the inhibition of cancer cells’ proliferation and induction of cancer cell death by apoptosis,” they say. In other words, as long as there is a suspected link between the two, researchers will keep searching and examining the connection. In fact, the flavonoids studied in this most recent study may lead to looking for similar links in other plants like fruits and vegetables.
“In general…there’s evidence that many flavonoids have a protective effect against cancer,” says Donato Romagnolo, Ph.D., a Professor of Nutritional Sciences and Cancer Biology at the University of Arizona Cancer Center, who recently co-authored a review of the evidence on flavonoids and cancer prevention. “Yet there is huge confusion on the potential effects of this class of food components on cancer risk and the review literature suggests that we are still wrestling with this issue.”