Feds Funding Research On Role Of Cannabis In Treating Cancer



The federal government is promoting funding opportunities for researchers to study the benefits and risks of marijuana for cancer patients.

In a notice of special interest posted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on Thursday, the agency said that about one in four cancer patients have reported using cannabis products to manage their symptoms—including anorexia, nausea and pain—but “research about their health effects, including potential harms and benefits, remain limited.”

NIH’s National Cancer Institute said that the purpose of the solicitation is to “promote research in understanding the mechanisms by which cannabis and cannabinoids affect cancer biology, cancer interception, cancer treatment and resistance, and management of cancer symptoms.”

It provided an overview of the existing research into the relationship between marijuana and cancer, as well as a list of eight areas of interest that the agency is asking researchers to investigate.

NIH said that the current body of epidemiological studies on this topic has “yielded limited and inconsistent results.” For example, while cannabis smoke may contain harmful constituents, it hasn’t been directly linked to an increased risk of lung cancer, the notice says.

The agency said “studies of other cancer types have shown no or inconsistent association with cannabis use, but these data are limited.”

The compounds in marijuana affect the endocannabinoid system, which plays a role in modulating “many cancer relevant processes, such as cell proliferation, motility and survival,” the notice says.

“Cancer cell line experiments show that THC and CBD can mediate many anti-tumor effects, including inducing apoptosis and inhibiting cell proliferation, invasion and angiogenesis,” it continues. “These anti-tumor activities have led to early clinical testing of THC and CBD for glioblastoma and prostate cancers.”

While NIH isn’t taking a position on the validity of past studies, it’s notable that the federal agency is recognizing where there might be therapeutic value in cannabis for the serious illness, especially considering that marijuana remains a prohibited Schedule I drug in large part because the government maintains that it has no legitimate medical use.

Here’s a list of research topics that NIH is seeking studies on with various funding opportunities: 

  • Understanding how exogenous cannabis and cannabinoids affect cancer development (preneoplasia through malignancy) and biology, including the tumor microenvironment;
  • Understanding how endogenous cannabinoid pathways influence cancer development and biology;
  • Defining the effects of cannabis and cannabinoids on cancer treatment (particularly targeted treatments and immunotherapy) and the development of treatment resistance;
  • Understanding the use of cannabis and cannabinoids in cancer interception and delineating how endocannabinoid signaling pathways may inhibit early cancers;
  • Defining the mechanisms of cannabis and cannabinoid action in alleviating symptoms of cancer and cancer treatment (such as pain, nausea and neuropathy);
  • Understanding the combinatorial effects of cannabis and cannabinoids in conjunction with other factors (such as tobacco constituents, alcohol, microbiome or diet) on cancer biology, treatment and symptom management;
  • Identifying biological mechanisms underlying disparities in sex or ethnicity in cannabis and cannabinoid action in cancer biology, treatment or symptom management; and
  • Developing or validating new and human-relevant model systems to understand cannabis and cannabinoid action in cancer biology, treatment or symptom management.

The notice states that the list is just a guideline, however, and researchers are invited to propose other research objectives within the basic framework.

“Studies that integrate expertise from multiple disciplines, incorporate state-of-the-art, human-relevant models (e.g., organoid or patient-derived xenograft models) and utilize advanced technologies and methods are strongly encouraged,” NIH said.

NCI also published a paper late last year arguing that administrative burdens stifle much-needed scientific investigation into the drug’s potential health applications and safety concerns.

Several federal health agencies have worked to bolster cannabis science as the legalization movement spreads. In 2020, for example, the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) highlighted funding opportunities for research into the therapeutic benefits of marijuana with an emphasis on pain management.

Meanwhile, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) recently renewed its push to promote federally funded research into marijuana as more states enact reform—specifically expressing interest in studies on differing cannabis regulatory models that are in place across the country.

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