The history of research on cannabis and leukemia stretches far back and encompasses a wide array of studies using different types of cannabis compounds — so let’s rewind for a moment.
What is leukemia and how is it treated?
Leukemia is a type of cancer where there is an imbalance of red and white cells in the blood and bone marrow. There are several different types of leukemia but they all progress quickly.
Chemotherapy is recommended as first-line treatment for leukemia, an effective cocktail of chemicals that also causes significant side effects like immune suppression, hair loss, and flu-like symptoms. Chemotherapy targets all blood cells, not just cancer cells, so it can end up leaving the body pretty damaged while fighting the disease.
CBD and leukemia cells
Lab studies have proven, not only does CBD target certain pathways in Leukemia cells, but CBD actually has the power to adhere to those cancer cells and destroy them. Dr. Bonni Goldstein, medical director of Canna-Centers in Los Angeles and the medical adviser to Weedmaps.com, explains how CBD effectively kills cancer cells.
It’s like a key in the lock. When compounds such as cannabidiol (CBD) bond to receptors, it causes the cell to die.
One of the earliest researchers of cannabis and Leukemia is Robert McKallip, an associate professor of immunology at Mercer University School of Medicine. His findings suggest that cannabis could be a useful tool, in conjunction with traditional medication, at easing side effects and boosting efficiency.
Study revealed the potential use of CBD for the prevention of graft-versus-host-disease (GVHD) following bone marrow transplants (Yeshurun et al., 2015). Bone marrow transplants have the potential to bring leukemia patients into remission if they are able to receive treatment – but GVHD presents a significant barrier to remission. A Phase II clinical trial showed that CBD is a promising strategy for preventing GVHD, laying the groundwork for future clinical trials.
The most recent study by Scott et al. (2017) showed that phytocannabinoids, related compounds extracted from cannabis, can be used in combination with current therapies to enhance their effect on leukemic cells. In addition, superior results were obtained when the phytocannabinoids were administered following chemotherapy, not the other way around.
While these findings are indeed promising, these experiments were also conducted in leukemia cell lines, not in humans. So, we still can’t make scientific conclusions about the direct effects of cannabis on leukemia.
However, the finding that sequencing plays an important role in the cannabis/chemotherapy treatment effect may help with the design of cannabis clinical trials, perhaps even informing leukemia treatment protocols in the future (Shah & Schwartz, 2001; Scott et al., 2013). And that’s pretty great news.
What do we know about the effects of cannabis on leukemia patients?
A few preliminary studies have shown some direct evidence of a beneficial role for cannabis in leukemia patients, in addition to the anecdotal evidence reported in the media. Although it may seem like there is a long way to go until we know for sure if cannabis can be used to treat leukemia, we are getting closer to that goal.