Pancreatic cancer: Cannabis compound may boost survival

Pancreatic cancer is a type of cancer that unfortunately has some of the lowest survival rates. A new study in mice suggests that one substance could help address this problem: cannabidiol, a naturally occurring cannabis compound.

According to data from the National Cancer Institute (NCI), in the United States, there will be an estimated 55,440 new cases of pancreatic cancer by the end of this year.

Treatments for this type of cancer include surgical resection (the removal of tissue affected by the cancer), as well as chemotherapy. Unfortunately, the prognosis tends to be poor, with only an 8.5 percent survival rate within 5 years from diagnosis, as per the NCI.

Researchers from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) in the United Kingdom, and from Curtin University in Bentley and Perth, Australia, have been making efforts to find a way of increasing survival rates for people diagnosed with this type of cancer.

Recently, Prof. Marco Falasca — of QMUL — and colleagues have conducted a study on a mouse model of pancreatic cancer, investigating an intriguing lead. They wanted to see if administering cannabidiol (CBD) — a naturally occurring component of medical cannabis — alongside chemotherapy medication would improve prognosis following treatment.

"The life expectancy for pancreatic cancer patients has barely changed in the last 40 years because there are very few, and mostly only palliative care, treatments available," notes Prof. Falasca.

"Given the [poor] 5-year survival rate for people with pancreatic cancer [...] the discovery of new treatments and therapeutic strategies is urgently needed," he stresses.

The research team's findings are now reported in the journal Oncogene.

'Remarkable results' in mice

The researchers focused on the potential of CBD rather than another cannabis compound, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), because the former does not cause psychoactive effects. This has led to CBD already gaining approval for use in a healthcare context.

If further studies show that CBD is effective in improving cancer treatment, this could mean that doctors will be able to use it in cancer clinics immediately.

In the current study, Prof. Falasca and team worked with a mouse model of pancreatic cancer, which they treated with CBD alongside a typical chemotherapy drug, called "Gemcitabine."

The team found that, following this combination treatment, the rodents survived almost three times as long as mice from a control group, which had only been treated with Gemcitabine.

"This is a remarkable result," says Prof. Falasca, adding, "We found that mice with pancreatic cancer survived nearly three times longer if a constituent of medicinal cannabis was added to their chemotherapy treatment."

CBD on 'high speed lane' for trials?

These results are very exciting for the researchers, who hope that, thanks to the fact that CBD is already considered safe, they will soon be able to use it in clinical trials testing this combination treatment in human patients.

"Cannabidiol is already approved for use in clinics, which means we can quickly go on to test this in human clinical trials," says Prof. Falasca.

"If we can reproduce these effects in humans, cannabidiol could be in use in cancer clinics almost immediately, compared to having to wait for authorities to approve a new drug."

The researchers also note that previous studies have shown that CBD can improve symptoms associated with chemotherapy treatments, including nausea, pain, and vomiting.

If future clinical trials prove that CBD is effective in improving survival rates for individuals going through chemotherapy for pancreatic cancer, it could also mean that the cannabis compound will help to offset some of the treatment's side effects.