Could hemp be the next best cancer treatment?
Hemp and marijuana are in the same botanical family, but the former doesn't share the latter's psychoactive properties.
As one of the earliest plants to be cultivated, hemp has been utilized by humans for thousands of years.
Clothing, paper, ships' sails, ropes, and shoes have all been made from hemp.
However, for a complex web of reasons, it fell out of favor during the 20th century.
But today, hemp is enjoying somewhat of a Renaissance, and, according to a new raft of studies, it might one day play a role in the treatment of ovarian cancer.
In particular, the laboratory of Wasana Sumanasekera — located at the Sullivan University College of Pharmacy in Louisville, KY — is currently a hotbed of research into hemp's potential ability to fight cancer.
A new strain of hemp
Earlier this week, two of the laboratory's researchers — Sara Biela and Chase Turner — presented their most recent findings at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology annual meeting, which ran alongside the 2018 Experimental Biology meeting, held in San Diego, CA.
Nobody can have missed cannabis's slow and steady rise into mainstream medicine. Hemp, however, has been all but neglected.
"Hemp, like marijuana," explains Biela, "contains therapeutically valuable components such as cannabidiol, cannabinol, and tetrahydrocannabinol. However, unlike marijuana, hemp's therapeutic ability has not been studied in detail."
Biela and Turner are determined to turn this around. For their experiments, they used a cultivated strain of hemp called KY hemp, which is grown in Kentucky.
It is designed to contain optimal levels of therapeutic ingredients and is grown in an environment that limits the possibility of contamination.
Hemp and ovarian cancer metastasis
In the first study to be presented, the researchers added KY hemp to cultured ovarian cancer cells. As expected, the hemp reduced the cells' ability to migrate. Similar studies have been carried out using cannabidiol, but this is the first time that the anti-migration powers of hemp have been studied.
The scientists hope that, potentially, the extract might one day be useful for slowing or preventing ovarian cancer metastasis. The study authors write, "Based on the data here, we conclude that KY hemp has significant anti-metastatic properties against ovarian cancer."
In the second study, they set out to explore how KY hemp might actively protect against ovarian cancer. Specifically, the scientists were interested in interleukin IL-1 beta, a chemical involved in inflammation that is thought to help cancer progress.
The authors write, "We hypothesized that the hemp-induced modulation of interleukin-1 beta production may play a role in hemp-induced anti-cancer effects."
As predicted, the hemp reduced the levels of interleukin IL-1 beta that were produced. This, they hope, might form a novel way to approach future cancer therapies.
"Our findings from this research, as well as prior research, show that KY hemp slows ovarian cancer comparable to, or even better than, the current ovarian cancer drug Cisplatin."
Turner continues, "Since Cisplatin exhibits high toxicity, we anticipate that hemp would carry less side effects. However, that needs to be tested in the future."
The two scientists plan to continue their investigations into hemp and cancer. Soon, they hope to take their research into a mouse model: the next step on the long road to human trials.
Although these studies are preliminary, they underline the importance of not being bound to one single approach or compound. Therefore, testing as many of the available raw materials as possible is a sensible plan.