Naomi was three days out from her breast cancer chemotherapy treatment. She knew this was when side effects would begin to take over her life — nausea, severe anxiety, intestinal cramping and diarrhea. As grateful as she was for the chemo, she dreaded these “lost days.”
Naomi was skilled at choosing the best drugs to help her get through the hard times. She had plenty of prescriptions, and they did help somewhat, but this time she had agreed to try something new. She plugged in a small vaporizer that had been readied with a tiny bit of cannabis, and she slowly inhaled the resulting vapor. She was pleased that there was no irritating smoke to deal with, but that is not what brought tears of gratitude to her eyes. Within seconds of inhaling the vapor, her symptoms melted away. She had never experienced such rapid and complete relief, and although the effects did not last very long, she knew she had found good medicine.
Naomi had been given some “High CBD” cannabis. She has lived with metastatic breast cancer for more than four years and has avoided cannabis most of that time — unwilling to tolerate the psychoactive side effects of marijuana. She did not like the feeling of being stoned. But cannabidiol (CBD) is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid, different from THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) in that it does not confer a high.
Cannabis has over 420 chemical compounds, including more than 80 cannabinoids that are not found in any other plant. Only a few are psychoactive — like THC — and for years the plant has been bred for increasingly concentrated levels of THC. There are numerous medical benefits to THC, but the psychoactive side effects limit its use in many situations.
The discovery of the therapeutic qualities in CBD began more than 20 years ago. In 1988, scientists first identified cannabinoid receptors in the human brain. Over the next 10 years, receptors would be discovered in the immune system, gut, liver, heart, kidneys, bones and blood vessels.
But the body only has receptors for naturally occurring internal substances, so scientists suspected there must be a THC-like compound occurring innately in the human body. In 1992, the first of these “endocannabinoids” was identified and the International Cannabinoid Research Society was formed.
Studies on cannabinoids are being done by reputable scientists in many countries, including Israel, Italy, Spain, the U.S. and Britain. These labs are uncovering therapeutic effects of previously unknown or ignored chemical compounds in cannabis — chemicals like CBD, the substance Naomi found so helpful.
CBD-rich cannabis has exciting potential for breast cancer patients. Clinical studies show it to be safe, nontoxic and effective for many medical uses including chronic pain, anxiety and side effects of cancer treatments. But there is more to the CBD cannabinoid than symptom relief.
In the lab, CBD has a direct effect on cancer cells. Pre-clinical studies have shown it to reduce the aggressiveness of breast cancer cells. In addition, by affecting an active gene found only in metastatic cancer, CBD can also inhibit the progression of metastatic breast cancer.
Scientists believe that the Id-1 gene is one of the genes responsible for the metastatic spread of breast cancer. This gene is appropriately active when humans are developing embryos. Then it becomes silent, and it should stay silent. But in metastatic breast cancer, this gene wakes up and stimulates cancer cells to multiply and invade healthy tissue. If scientists could find a way to turn it off again, they could block the progress of metastatic breast cancer.
In 2007, a research lab at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco found CBD to be the first known nontoxic agent that can significantly inhibit the Id-1 gene.
Breast cancer, when localized, is treatable. It is only when it recurs and spreads throughout the body that it becomes deadly. The development of new treatments to prevent and treat metastatic breast cancer is essential to finding a cure, and the cannabinoid CBD may be a valuable tool in this quest.
Some medical marijuana dispensaries in California are beginning to test and label the relative percentages of THC and CBD in their products. CBD-rich strains are becoming available in some of these more reputable dispensaries. Outside the US, a mouth spray developed by GW Pharmaceuticals, made of whole plant extracts, is obtainable. Available by prescription in over 22 countries, Sativex contains equal parts THC and CBD. The CBD balances out some of the psychoactive effects of THC, making Sativex more palatable to the general public.
Medical cannabis can be good medicine for patients going through breast cancer therapy, but many — like Naomi — are uncomfortable with the unwanted side effects. High-CBD strains of cannabis hold promise for providing relief and possible tumor suppression, without toxicity.
By STACEY M. KERR. M.D.
September 30, 2010
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