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Nobel Prize for THC's Cancer-Killing Mechanism

Oct 09, 2016 07:43PM ● By Randy Robinson

Photo by Adam Baker via Flickr

On Oct. 3, Dr. Yoshinori Ohsumi at the Tokyo Institute of Technology won the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for uncovering the cellular mechanisms behind autophagy. Autophagy is a biological process where a cell triggers its own self-destruction: the cell devours itself and recycles its contents. Scientists have known about the process since the 1960s, but they didn't understand how it worked for nearly four decades.

The wealth of information deciphered by Dr. Ohsumi's team could treat, if not cure, a whole host of diseases. Understanding autophagy's mechanisms could even prevent or reverse the aging process

Because autophagy only affects the cell that's killing itself, pharmaceutical companies are investigating ways to exploit the process. Ideally, inducing autophagy in tumors will kill the cancerous cells while keeping healthy cells intact.

But what does any of this have to do with marijuana?

In 2003, a research team led by Drs. Manuel Guzman and Christina Sanchez announced an amazing discovery. They found that gliomas, or brain cancer cells, would die in the presence of THC. THC is the primary component of Cannabis sativa that gets us "elevated."

Over the years, Guzman and Sanchez's teams hit a number of other cancerous cells in mice and in petri dishes, and they keep getting the same result: high amounts of THC causes these cancerous cells to literally eat themselves.

The beauty of THC-induced autophagy in cancer cells is that healthy cells are left alone. Brain cancers are infamously difficult to treat, as surgery on brain tissue can be incredibly complicated, even impossible, in some patients. Radiation and chemo therapies are also notorious for destroying healthy cells, in some cases causing so much damage the patient's health becomes doubly compromised from both the cancer and the treatments.

In 2006, Guzman and Sanchez tested THC injections on humans with gliomas. Although their Phase I clinical trial wasn't designed to study THC's immediate medical effects, they did conclude that THC could be safely injected into human brains. In some test subjects, the gliomas began to shrink after the THC shots.

How does THC do this? We're not entirely sure. However, the data suggests when THC binds to the CB receptors of cancerous cells, chemical signals direct the abnormal cancer cell to behave "normally," triggering apoptosis or "programmed cell death." Once the cell is directed to kill itself, it autophages. Sanchez describes this behavior as the cancer "committing suicide."

Dr. Ohsumi's Nobel Prize may bring renewed interest in autophagy. And, we hope, this win will raise awareness of THC's potential to treat difficult cancers in human patients.

Related story: Dr. Bob Melamede discusses cancer metabolism and cannabis

Dr. Christina Sanchez discusses potential THC/CBD treatments for cancer