Over the last 45 years, the life expectancy of patients diagnosed with pancreatic cancer has seen no significant rise. According to the National Cancer Institute, the 5-year survival rate of colon cancer has risen from 48.9% to 64.5% since the 1970’s due to an increase in regular screenings available to the population. (1, 2) Ovarian cancer’s survival rate has increased from just under 34% to 47.4% since 1975, even without universal screenings that can detect cancer beforehand, due to a series of tests available to high-risk patients that can help detect/monitor cancer in the early stages. (3, 4)
In comparison, pancreatic cancer’s 5-year survival rate has seen a frighteningly low increase from 3.1% to only 8.3% since 1975. (5) While some screenings and early detection methods do exist for high-risk individuals, they are not proven to increase the likelihood of survival once diagnosed, no matter how early the stage of cancer. (6)
However, new research may be on the way to discovering a treatment for this disease that not only palliates the symptoms until the patient’s death but could potentially lead to an increase in survival rates.
The Developing Research
A study published in July of 2018 by lead researchers of Queen Mary University of London and Curtin University in Western Australia details the promising results in an experiment involving the treatment of mice with pancreatic cancer.
The experiment was conducted by researchers administering standard chemotherapy treatment in tandem with a dosage of GPR55 antagonist Cannabidiol, also known as CBD. According to their findings, the mice that were treated with both methods survived nearly three times longer than mice treated with chemotherapy alone. They discovered that the properties of CBD “reduced proliferation of tumor cells… and it opposed mechanisms involved in the development of resistance to [chemotherapy],” among other factors that contributed to the subjects’ prolonged survival. (7)
What Is CBD?
CBD is an isolated compound found in the cannabis (marijuana) plant. It is typically the second most abundant “cannabinoid” present in the plant, the more prevalent compound being the “high” inducing and famously addictive substance, THC. (8) CBD, however, is non-psychoactive and non-intoxicating and already has a long history of being used by cancer patients to help manage symptoms.
A publication in US National Library of Medicine (NLM) outlines how “cannabis is useful in combating anorexia, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, pain, insomnia, and depression,” as well as confirms that animal-based studies support the possibility of cannabinoids having a direct anti-cancer effect on the growth of tumors and other factors of cancer progression. (9)
What Happens Next?
Despite these encouraging results in animal trials, studies involving human subjects have not been widely conducted to further the examination of CBD as a viable treatment in the US. Another NLM publication credits this potentially to the “unwanted psychoactive side effects” associated with marijuana products, specifically in reference to the compound THC. (10) Where other nations like the UK have already approved the use of isolated CBD for clinical use, allowing for quick transition to human clinical trials, (11) similar progress in the US is stymied by legal obstacles.
In a ruling passed in December of 2016, the DEA confirmed that it still considers CBD sourced from marijuana as an illegal substance, despite its isolation from the THC compound. (12) Minor progress has been made since then on the front of medically sanctioned CBD, namely the FDA’s approval of a CBD-based drug as a treatment for cases of severe epilepsy in June 2018. (13) With victories like this paving the way, future chances of advancing CBD research in the US may yet be possible, though the climate of the issue remains heavy with uncertainty.
For the time being, we rely on the global community of medicine to continue the groundbreaking research of this substance and its potential to grant another chance at life to those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Written by Zoe Freeman