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Cannabis-Based Trial Explores Potential Benefits in Brain Tumor Patients

A dude using a cannabis spray for cancer

The growth of the cannabis industry has been profound over the last decade. The legalization of cannabis and cannabinoids for recreational and medicinal purposes in many countries have fueled this growth. This has been welcomed news for many in medical research fields. In the past, legal restrictions prevented clinical investigations because substances would not be approved. But today, it is much easier to receive funding for a cannabis-based trial. And some researchers are taking full advantage of these opportunities. (Read more about the explosive growth of the cannabis industry in this Bold story.)

Over the past few years, cannabis and cannabinoids have been studied in a variety of illnesses. Some are used to manage pain and inflammation, replacing more toxic compounds like opioids and harsh anti-inflammatory drugs. Other cannabis-based trial investigations have shown that these can be helpful in alleviating spasticity in disorders like MS. Thus, it’s not surprising that researchers are now looking at potential benefits of these drugs in other disorders. And the most recent one looks to explore the potential advantages cannabis and cannabinoids may have in brain cancer patients.

“We think that Sativex may kill glioblastoma tumor cells and that it may be particularly effective when given with temozolomide chemotherapy, so it may enhance the effects of chemotherapy treatment in stopping these tumors growing, allowing patients to live longer.” – Susan Short, Professor of Clinical Oncology and Neuro-oncology, Leeds University, UK

Cannabis and Cannabinoids in Glioblastoma

When it comes to brain cancers, not only are glioblastomas the most common type but likewise the most difficult to treat. Advanced glioblastomas carry a poor prognosis, with estimated longevity usually 1-2 years from the time of diagnosis. Despite surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, doctors have had little luck in improving management. But potentially, cannabis and cannabinoids may offer some hope. While not believed to be curative in nature, these compounds could extend life and improve its quality. Thus, UK researchers at Leeds University are launching a cannabis-based trial to explore potential benefits among glioblastoma patients.

A cannabis leaf and a spray bottle
Cannabis and cannabinoids might hold the key to the next generation of cancer treatments.

The drug that will be evaluated is Sativex, whose generic name is Nabiximols. Sativex is a combination drug containing both cannabis (THC) and cannabinoids (CBD). In prior trials, Sativex has been found to have a good safety profile in brain cancer patients. Likewise, despite a small sample, those taking Sativex tended to live longer (83% alive at one year with Sativex; 44% without it). Based on this data, researchers are now going to explore a larger study over a total of 3 years. In total, over 200 patients with glioblastoma will be recruited from 15 hospitals for the cannabis-based trial. The purpose is to determine if Sativex when combined with chemotherapy gives patients better overall outcomes.

“We know there is significant interest in our community about the potential activity of cannabinoids in treating glioblastomas, and we’re really excited that this world-first trial here in the UK could help to accelerate these answers.” – David Jenkinson, MD, Interim CEO, The Brain Tumour Charity

Potential Effects of Cannabis and Cannabinoids

Medications that contain cannabis and cannabinoids have a variety of potential mechanisms of action. The THC component can provide anti-nausea effects as well as pain relief and a sense of euphoria. The CBD aspect tends to be more beneficial as a pain reliver and anti-inflammatory. Thus, combined, these medications offer advantages in some specific conditions. Individuals with chronic pain, muscle spasms, and chronic inflammation could benefit from such drugs. But increasingly, scientists suspect there may be other positive effects. As a result, several cannabis-based trial investigations are being considered.

In the cannabis-based trial for glioblastoma, researchers believe that Sativex may actually target and eliminate brain cancer cells. This has yet to be demonstrated, but the current trial hopes to explore this possibility further. In addition, cannabis and cannabinoids may also have positive mood effects. A recent cannabis-based trial that began in 2019 is exploring whether these compounds reduce aggression and agitation in advanced dementia. Given that research involving cannabis and cannabinoids is so new, a number of positive clinical effects from these medications could exist. (Dive deeper into the positive clinical applications of cannabis in this Bold story.)

“It is vital that trials like this, investigating the role cannabis or the chemicals in it can play to treat cancer, are carried out.” – Pam Kearns, Director of Cancer Research Unit, Birmingham University

Expanding Uses for Sativex

The drug Sativex is a combination medication that has both cannabis and cannabinoids. Specifically, it contains 2.7mg of THC and 2.5 mg of CBD, and it is administrated via oral spray. The medication stimulates salivation, which transports the chemicals to the stomach for absorption. Since 2010, Sativex oral spray has been approved for use in several conditions included spasticity, overactive bladder, and pain. In fact, it has been approved in 25 different companies worldwide for these types of conditions. But this may be just the tip of the iceberg if additional cannabis-based trial results are favorable.

Sativex is manufactured by GW Pharmaceuticals, and the company provider Bayer exclusive rights to market the drug in the UK. In other regions, Novartis is able to promote the drug’s use. Notably, all involved would like to broaden the potential use of Sativex. This is why new cannabis-based trial research in brain cancer and dementia is being watched with great anticipation. The number of patients with advanced dementia and glioblastomas are substantial. And if Sativex provides benefit with insignificant side effects, this further advance the demand for cannabis-based medications.

Investing in Cannabis Potential

The current study in the UK has been named the Aristocrat Study, and it is being funded by the Brain Tumour Charity. The charity is actively seeking grant funding for the cannabis-based trial after having notable setbacks  during the pandemic. In total, they hope to raise roughly $500,000 in an effort to complete the 3-year research trial. This is a substantial sum. But given the potential that Sativex offers, it’s an investment that carries significant hope. This is especially true for those suffering from glioblastoma.


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