William Frost, who is being treated at Nottingham University’s children’s brain tumor center. His parents are supporting the project.
British scientists are investigating whether a compound found in cannabis could be used to shrink brain tumors in children.
The study of the effects of cannabidiol (CBD), the non-psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, was prompted by a growing number of parents giving it to children with a brain tumor after buying it online. The lead researcher, Prof Richard Grundy of Nottingham University’s children’s brain tumor center, said in the last six months there had been a surge in parents administering it without medical advice in the belief it might help.
While no research has been done into how CBD can help children’s brain tumors, some work has been done looking at how cannabis-based molecules can help adult cancer patients. Products containing cannabidiol can be bought online, although recent changes mean companies now require a licence to sell them.
“New ways to treat childhood brain tumors are urgently needed to extend and improve the quality of life in malignant brain tumor patients, so we are excited at the prospect of testing the effect of cannabidiol on brain tumor cells,” said Grundy.
Brain tumors kill more children in the UK than any other type of cancer. Around 1,750 under-18s each year are diagnosed with cancer, of which about 400 are cancers of the brain and spinal cord.
The study, thought to be the first of its kind in the world, will seek to establish whether CBD reduces tumors. The researchers will grow cells from different brain tumors in lab conditions, some with the addition of cannabidiol molecules and others without. They will then compare how the presence of tumor cells differs in both samples through a technique called cell staining. This will help them see how many of the cells are dividing and whether any are dying.
Grundy said: “We expect the cells – brain tumor and normal brain – grown in our standard conditions to be healthy and actively dividing. We expect that normal brain cells grown in cannabidiol will remain healthy. However, we expect the brain tumor cells grown in cannabidiol to stop growing and die.”
Katie Sheen, of the Astro Brain Tumor Fund, which is co-funding the study, said if it proved to be successful CBD could be a gentler, less toxic way of treating cancer than chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
Dr Wai Liu, a research fellow at St George’s University of London, said: “We have performed experiments using CBD in leukemia and it can deactivate signalling pathways, making cells more responsive to chemotherapy.”
He said some drug companies combined CBD with psychoactive component tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) with positive responses, especially when combined with chemotherapy.
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British Study Examines Marijuana Ingredient's Ability to Shrink Children's Tumors