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A Message From the Illustrious Dr. Bob: Metabolism, Cancer, and MMJ

May 18, 2016 10:33AM ● By Randy Robinson

There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Robert Melamede, PhD., known as “Dr. Bob” to his students and peers. He pioneered the field of molecular biology before it was ever called “molecular biology,” and he’s a specialist in DNA damage and repair. For the layperson, that means Dr. Bob is an expert in cancer, and he believes THC should be considered an essential nutrient for preventing it.

On May 17, Dr. Bob released a homemade video where he talks about how cannabis fights cancer. To those uninitiated in the world of medical marijuana, the phrase “cannabis cures cancer” may sound far-fetched. It may even sound ridiculous.

The thing, it isn’t. There’s a growing body of research that shows marijuana does, indeed, kill cancer cells.

A Brief History

Humans have known about the medicinal properties of cannabis for millennia. The earliest known records go back to the Middle East, India, and China, although cannabis cultivation (and smoking) likely started in prehistoric Africa. The world’s first pharmacopoeia listed cannabis as a healing herb, where it remained in most pharmacopoeias until the 1930s.

It wasn’t until 1975 that scientists directly observed marijuana’s anti-cancer effects. Virginia researchers published their findings in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, and what they found was astounding.

The researchers sought to study the effects of cannabis on lung cancer — mouse lung cancer, to be precise. They expected THC, cannabis's magic ingredient, would kill lung cells. Instead, THC appeared to kill only the tumor cells, and it slowed the growth of new tumors, too.

The Virginia study never made waves outside of a mention in the Washington Post. This paper was published four years into tried-and-true cannabis prohibition, and positive portrayals of marijuana back then weren’t popular outside of rock music and Cheech and Chong films.

The Endocannabinoid System

The Virginia researchers were also stumped as to why cannabis slowed tumor growth. Then, in the 1980s, scientists stumbled on a huge clue as to why marijuana worked as medicine: the endocannabinoid system.

What is the endocannabinoid system? It’s a physiologicalsystem in all of us, just like our nervous system or respiratory system. The endocannabinoid system acts as a communication and regulatory network on our cells, our tissues, and our organs. Complex lifeforms such as ourselves must manage billions upon billions of chemical reactions at any given moment in order to survive and function. Our nervous system connects our organs to one another, but the endocannabinoid system fine-tunes the wiring that powers the marvelous machine we call “the body.”

In other words, the endocannabinoid system is the part of our bodies that tells our individual cells and organs to do what they’re supposed to do — and at top performance, at that.

Recent Research

In today’s climate, academics and medical professionals are finally starting to take medical cannabis seriously. In 2003, the University of Madrid published a paper that proposed new cancer therapies using cannabinoids like THC and CBD. The claims in this study went far beyond using marijuana to treat nausea or lack of appetite. Manuel Guzman, Christina Sanchez, and other researchers among the Spanish team concluded that cannabinoids caused cancer cells to die while leaving healthy cells intact. Conventional therapies, such as chemo and radiation, kill both cancer and healthy cells, which can seriously compromise the patient’s well-being.

Video: Dr. Christina Sanchez explains how cannabis kills cancer

But Wait, There’s More

Dr. Bob’s video summarizes how whole-plant cannabis extracts can treat cancer holistically. Combined with conventional therapies, cannabinoids may one day become a staple for any doctor’s cancer-fighting regimen. Although Dr. Bob speaks with a lot of scientific and medical jargon, you’re in luck: I’m about to translate it for you.

Video: Dr. Bob explains cancer, cannabis, and metabolism

Cancer is a breakdown of cellular communication.

Normal cells go through a cell cycle, where they’re born, grow, and die. The death of cells is important because cells accumulate DNA damage over time. When a cell dies and is replaced by a new one, the cell line has basically “reset” itself. Tumor cells, however, are cells that have forgotten how to die. They replicate uncontrollably, and when they begin to take on a life of their own, they become cancer. Dr. Bob describes cancer cells as “selfish” in that they no longer act in the body’s best interests, only their own.

Cannabis metabolizes sugar.

There’s lots of different kinds of cancer, and lots of different causes for them. Some cancers thrive off sugars and other carbohydrates. Cannabis regulates the activity of insulin, a protein our bodies produce to efficiently break down sugars for our cells’ uses. By clearing out any excess sugars, our bodies not only deprive these cancers of their food, they also prevent obesity, a physical state correlated with higher cancer risks.

Cannabis metabolizes fat cells.

Just as there’s some cancers that flourish under sugary conditions, other cancers feed off fat. Cannabis affects the metabolic system so we burn our fat cells at a normal rate. By burning our fat cells, we again cut off cancer cells from their sustenance. THC can also cause cancer cells to become “fat eating,” and since every cell membrane is composed of fats, this forces the cancer cell to literally eat itself through a process called autophagy.

Cannabis dials-down the immune system.

We typically think of high immune system activity as a good thing. But our immune cells attack foreign cells (bacteria, fungi, etc.) by releasing massive quantities of free radicals into our blood and tissues. These free radicals are highly unstable, highly reactive chemicals that essentially “nuke” any and all nearby cells, good and bad. Free radicals can also interact with our DNA, causing mutations that can lead to cancerous states. By consuming cannabis, we’re likely decreasing excessive immune system activity. This “tuning down” effect regulates what Dr. Bob calls our “biological thermostat.”

Cannabis’s effects on our immune systems may also explain why marijuana can treat autoimmune disorders such as lupus and arthritis.

Cannabis aids the immune system, too.

One neat effect of cannabis is that it can make cancer cells more susceptible to our natural defenses. Our immune system employs LAK cells to kill cancerous cells before they get out of control. Cannabis consumption may increase the cancer cells’ production of ICAM-1, a molecule that makes the cancer cell “stickier” when it comes in contact with LAK cells – and only LAK cells.

Cannabis destroys free radicals.

Another property of cannabinoids is “scavenging” for free radicals. When THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids come in contact with free radicals, they capture the little buggers and “quench” them, effectively deactivating the harmful properties of those free radicals.  

Cannabis – and cancer – epigenetically alters our cells.

Epigenetics is a relatively new field of molecular biology, the study of how our genes are altered over time. It comes from the Greek “epi” meaning “upon” and “genesis” meaning origin or birth.  When we think of our DNA, we tend to think of it as a static blueprint for our bodies. That DNA never changes is a common misconception, a modern day version of nature-over-nurture. In reality, DNA is not static. Our genetic code is constantly being written, revised, and edited by our daily physiology.

What we eat, how much we exercise, how much we sleep, when we sleep, how often we laugh, and how often we’re depressed can change how our genes are expressed. More importantly, these changes can be passed on from one generation of cell to another, and new evidence suggests epigenetic changes may even be passed on to our offspring.

The genetics of cancer are subject to the forces of epigenetics. This is how a relatively normal cell becomes cancerous: the cell’s DNA is fundamentally changed. Regular cannabis consumption may also affect us epigenetically, as pre-cancerous cells are selected for elimination and healthy cells are encouraged to flourish.

Where We Go From Here

We wait. We educate. We inform. Right now, the scientific consensus is still wary of declaring cannabis as a “cure” for cancer. We need tightly controlled clinical trials for cannabis on human cancer patients before we can make any definitive conclusions. The process will take years and millions – if not billions – of dollars. Unfortunately, the U.S. government restricts a lot of this research, but hopefully this changes soon as the general public becomes more aware of cannabis’s healing properties.

Regardless, the times are changing. The National Cancer Institute, a federal medical research organization, formally recognizes cannabis as a cancer treatment. The American Cancer Society, a national non-profit, has also called for more research into marijuana. 

VICE documentary on kids who take cannabis to treat cancer