Grant funds will soon be available to researchers who are working to treat cannabis.
A “Notice of Special Interest” (NOSI) (entitled “Basic Mechanisms of Cannabis and Cannabinoid Action in Cancer”) was posted on May 5 by NIH’s National Cancer Institute, with the intent “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.”
In the notice, NIH explains that the reasoning behind this effort is due to the growing number of cancer patients seeking relief with medical cannabis, but that there are not enough studies to verify its effectiveness. “Cancer patients use cannabis and cannabinoids to manage symptoms of cancer and cancer treatment including anorexia, nausea, and pain,” the NOSI states. “Recent survey evidence suggests that a quarter of cancer patients have used cannabis for symptom management. Despite the increase in cannabis and cannabinoid use, research about their health effects, including potential harms and benefits, remain limited.”
The notice summarizes what is currently known about cannabis cancer treatment by explaining that data regarding risk for cancer patients is not widely available. “Epidemiological studies of cannabis use and cancer risk have yielded limited and inconsistent results,” the notice explains. “While cannabis smoke generates many of the same carcinogens as tobacco, studies to date have not shown a link between cannabis smoking and lung cancer risk.” The notice uses the example of cannabis smoking being linked to testicular cancer as well.
It also briefly defines the activity of various cannabinoid receptors in the human body through animal models and cancer cell lines. “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,” the NOSI states. “These anti-tumor activities have led to early clinical testing of THC and CBD for glioblastoma and prostate cancers. While preclinical studies show differing effects of cannabinoids on cancer cells, deeper understanding is needed about how the tumor promoting and suppressive mechanisms of cannabinoid signaling influence cancer biological processes.”
Finally, the notice summarizes the current state of Food and Drug Administration-approved synthetic cannabinoids, dronabinol and nabilone, that are being used to treat chemotherapy. “Increasingly, cancer treatments involve targeted and immunological therapies, but little is known about whether and how cannabis and cannabinoids influence their efficacy.”
The NOSI concludes by inviting researchers whose focus on these topics (Cancer Risk, Cannabinoid Ligands and Receptors, Cancer Biology, Cancer Treatment and Symptom Management) can lead to a wide variety of research opportunities.
The NIH won’t consider any applications for studies that include clinical trials, “symptoms not related to cancer or cancer treatment,” or “projects that lack cancer models, specimens, or cells.” Instead the agency is looking for more specific methods of study in order for researchers to be considered. “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.” Researchers can apply for a grant starting on June 5 and onward.
In December 2021, the NCI released a paper addressing the challenges that are holding back cannabis and cannabinoid research. “Conflicting federal and state cannabis regulations hinder research in several ways including the inability of researchers to access products that are legal in their state, a lack of standardization and quality control of cannabis and cannabis-derived products within and across states, and no national oversight of this standardization and quality control or the industry.”
Although government agencies have conducted limited studies in the past in relation to medical cannabis, many other study efforts have begun to explore cannabis consumption among cancer patients. The Virginia Commonwealth University of Massey Cancer Center published a study in August 2021 and found that cancer patients consume less cannabis than those of the general public. A study published in December 2020 found that one-third of Canadian cancer patients were reporting cannabis use as well.