Are Cannabis or Cannabinoids helpful and effective treatment for cancer?

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Cancer is a broad term used to describe a wide range of related diseases that are characterized by an abnormal, unregulated division of cells; it is a biological disorder that often results in tumor growth (NCI, 2015). Cancer is among the leading causes of mortality in the United States, and by the close of 2016 there will be an estimated 1.7 million new cancer diagnoses (NCI, 2016). Relevant to the committee’s interest, there is evidence to suggest that cannabinoids (and the endocannabinoid system more generally) may play a role in the cancer regulation processes (Rocha et al., 2014). Therefore, there is interest in determining the efficacy of cannabis or cannabinoids for the treatment of cancer.

Using the committee’s search strategy only one recent review was found to be of good to fair quality (Rocha et al., 2014).3 The review focused exclusively on the anti-tumor effects of cannabinoids on gliomas.4 Of the 2,260 studies identified through December 2012, 35 studies met the inclusion criteria. With the exception of a small clinical trial, these studies were all preclinical studies. All 16 of the in vivo studies found an antitumor effect of cannabinoids.

Nausea and vomiting are common side effects of many cytotoxic chemotherapy agents. A number of pharmaceutical interventions in various drug classes have been approved for the treatment of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. Among the cannabinoid medications, nabilone and dronabinol were initially approved in 1985 for nausea and vomiting associated with cancer chemotherapy in patients who failed to respond adequately to conventional antiemetic treatments (Todaro, 2012, pp. 488, 490).

Whiting et al. (2015) summarized 28 trials reporting on nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy, most published before 1984, involving 1,772 participants. The cannabinoid therapies investigated in these trials included nabilone (14), tetrahydrocannabinol (6), levonantradol (4), dronabinol (3), and nabiximols (1). Eight studies were placebo controlled, and 20 included active comparators (prochlorperazine 15; chlorpromazine 2; dromperidone 2; and alizapride, hydroxyzine, metoclopramide, and ondansetron 1 each). Two studies evaluated combinations of dronabinol with prochlorperazine or ondansetron. The average number of patients showing a complete nausea and vomiting response was greater with cannabinoids than the placebo (OR, 3.82, 95% CI = 1.55–9.42) in 3 trials of dronabinol and nabiximols that were considered low-quality evidence. Whiting et al. (2015) concluded that all trials suggested a greater benefit for cannabinoids than for both active agents and for the placebo, although these did not reach statistical significance in all trials.


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