Cannabis is already being used as a medicinal treatment for symptoms of cancer and cancer treatments, like radiation and chemotherapy. However, a recent study has found that cannabis use could actually curb the chances of developing hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), one of the most common malignancies worldwide.
The association between HCC and cannabis has previously been identified in mice, though, to the knowledge of researchers, not yet in humans, which prompted the investigation.
HCC accounts for the majority of primary liver cancers. The study notes that the World Health Organization expects the incidence of HCC to increase until 2030, with overestimates in excess of 1 million deaths from liver cancer. The United States has seen a 43% increase in death rates from liver cancer between 2000 and 2016.
Researchers from Georgetown University Hospital and the Cleveland Clinic used data from the National Inpatient Sample (NIS) database between 2002 to 2014, identifying patients with HCC and cannabis use diagnosis. The researchers then identified patients without cannabis use as a control group, adjusting for multiple potential confounders and performing a multivariable logistic regression analysis to determine the potential association between cannabis use and HCC.
To the knowledge of researchers, it was the largest study evaluating the relationship between cannabis use and HCC.
The study included a staggering total of 101,231,026 patients. From that group, 996,290 patients had the diagnosis of “cannabis abuse” versus the 100,234,746 in the control group without it. Researchers also noted cannabis-using patients were younger (34 versus 48 years of age on average), had more men (61.7% versus 41.4%) and more African Americans (29.9% versus 14.2%), compared to the control group.
Authors also observed that cannabis users had a higher tendency to engage in higher-risk behaviors, including alcohol abuse (28% versus 3%) and smoking (44% versus 9%). Viral hepatitis was also more prevalent among cannabis users, which researchers presumed was related to high-risk behaviors like intravenous drug use.
Though the study noted that patients using cannabis were 55% less likely to have HCC, compared to the control group, they cited that this only confirms correlation. Essentially, researchers were unable to confirm a definite, direct causation.
In their discussion of the results, researchers explain that CBD offers one explanation to their observations, “by providing protection against HCC or at least deceleration of disease progression. Furthermore, pharmaceutical development of compounds exerting the dual effect of CB1 antagonism and CB2 agonism can play a major role in the management of liver diseases.”
The authors disclose that the NIS is an administrative database, meant for financial and administrative management rather than for research. That said, they say that the data could vary in the degree of detail and accuracy.
They also say that, among patients with a history of cannabis use, “we cannot determine whether they are actively using cannabis or merely have a remote history of use.”
They also note the limitations of the cross-sectional study design, with potential recall bias in reporting exposures. This model also didn’t allow researchers to draw direct causation effects.
“Hence, we suggest prospective clinical studies to further understand the mechanism by which various active ingredients, particularly CBD in cannabis, may possibly regulate hepatocellular carcinoma development,” they conclude.
Other recent studies have demonstrated that cannabinoid-based therapies can stop liver cancer growth. Moving beyond the liver, studies have also shown the efficacy of cannabis treatments to kill colon, pancreatic, and breast cancer cells.
Will the future offer an array of preventative cannabis and CBD treatments for those more likely to develop HCC and similar cancers? Of course, this early research is only scratching the surface of the topic and potential cannabis has to offer, but it offers a solid foundation for future research and hopefully opens the door to more breakthroughs.