Cannabis Extract Could Hold Secret To Treating Melanoma Skin Cancer

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Cannabis has long been viewed as a potential treatment for cancer patients, but research is scant, and there are virtually no clinical trials to support its use. With that said, a new study found that an extract from cannabis sativa has a ‘deadly’ effect on melanoma skin cancer cells. Here’s everything you need to know!

What Is Melanoma?

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that originates in melanocytes – the cells that make melanin, which gives skin its color. Melanocytes are primarily found in the epidermis (outer layer of the skin), and melanoma is primarily caused by excessive sunlight exposure.

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According to the American Cancer Society, more than 100,000 people living in the United States will be diagnosed with melanoma in 2024. It represents nearly 6% of all skin cancers but is responsible for more than 80% of skin cancer-related deaths.

How Can Cannabis Sativa Help?

A new study by Charles Darwin University (CDU) and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) is giving melanoma patients a sense of hope, and it’s all thanks to the Cannabis sativa plant – one of three subspecies of the marijuana plant.

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To be more specific, the researchers studied one specific cannabis sativa extract – dubbed PHEC-66. According to the study, this compound has a way of preventing melanoma growth and, eventually, killing the melanoma cells.

What Exactly Is PHEC-66?

PHEC-66 is one of the many compounds that can be extracted from the Cannabis plant. These compounds are known as cannabinoid-derived compounds and they are known to have a lot of positive effects on the human body.

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For the study, researchers used a PHEC-66 cannabis oil produced by MGC Pharmaceuticals in Australia. The lead researcher – Nazim Nassar, PhD, of RMIT University – published the results of the study in Cells – an international, peer-reviewed, open-access journal by MDPI.

Discovery #1: PHEC-66 Impedes The Growth Of Melanoma

In the study, the researchers claim that PHEC-66 impedes the growth of three melanoma cells in particular – MM418-C1, MM329, and MM96L cells. This means the cells stop dividing, and the cancer stops growing.

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“This inhibitory effect arises from interactions with CB1 and CB2 receptors. PHEC-66’s impact extends to the modulation of cell cycle progression, particularly evident in the sub-G1 and sub-G1/G1 phases,” the researchers wrote in Cells.

Discovery #2: PHEC-66 Has ‘Deadly’ Effect On Melanoma Cells

Not only does PHEC-66 slow melanoma growth, but it also begins a ‘programmed cell death,’ eventually resulting in the death of the melanoma cell – a process known as apoptosis.

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PHEC-66 influences metabolic pathways by inducing the accumulation of ROS within these cells, thereby tilting the balance toward pro-apoptotic signaling pathways while diminishing anti-apoptotic ones. All these actions together start the process of apoptosis and slow down the growth of melanoma cells,” the researchers continued.

Problem #1: Is PHEC-66 Safe And Effective In Humans?

The study resulted in several discoveries, but researchers have two primary problems. The first is that it was conducted in a laboratory setting, which is usually the first step in discovery, but it doesn’t quite tell the whole story.

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In this case, PHEC-66 did what we wanted it to do in a lab setting, but we don’t know if it has the same effect on animals and humans. Until human trials take place, PHEC-66’s effectiveness against melanoma skin cells in the human body will be unknown.

Problem #2: How Do We Deliver PHEC-66 To The Cell?

The second problem is trying to figure out how to deliver PHEC-66 directly to the melanoma cell – that way, it can work its ‘magic’ and prevent cell growth. Of course, this is a bridge researchers will cross when they get to it – after human trials confirm what we’re hoping for.

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“We need to find the way to deliver (the extract) directly to the cell. Probably here we’re looking at something topical or subcutaneous under the skin that will deliver the medicine directly to the target cells,” Nassar said.

Biomedical Scientist Excited For The Future

Nassar knows how far away they are from confirming their discovery, but they’re close enough to know it’s worth the time, energy, and effort to get there. He hopes more researchers join in on his efforts, so they can continue to develop advanced delivery systems.

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“This is a growing area of important research because we need to understand cannabis extracts as much as possible, especially their potential to function as anticancer agents. If we know how they react to cancer cells, particularly in the cause of cell death, we can refine treatment techniques to be more specific, responsive, and effective,” Nassar said.

Can We Treat Melanoma With Cannabis Sativa?

As of today, Cannabis sativa isn’t a reliable treatment for melanoma. Instead, skin cancer patients generally undergo a combination of surgery, immunotherapy, targeted therapy, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy – as well as various natural remedies.

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That said, certain cannabinoid-driven compounds are showing promise as supplemental treatments – meaning they could be used alongside the treatments listed above in the future. Of course, that all depends on what the research says.

Can Cannabis Help Treat Other Types Of Cancers?

Cannabis has shown a lot of potential in treating cancer – and melanoma isn’t the only type that stands to benefit. In fact, studies dating back to 2011 show that Cannabis compounds can be used to treat pancreatic cancer, non-melanoma skin cancer, and leukemia.

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In 2016, Australia took a major step towards learning more about the plant when they legalized the use of cannabis for medicinal purposes. This allowed medical professionals and scientists to study the plant in great detail – and more countries are following in their footsteps.

2011: Fighting Pancreatic Cancer

One study, published in the Cell Death and Disease journal in April 2011, found that combining Gemcitabine (used to treat pancreatic adenocarcinoma) with cannabinoids helps increase the treatment’s effectiveness.

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“Pancreatic adenocarcinoma is one of the most aggressive and devastating human malignancies with a death-to-incidence ratio of 0.99,” the researchers wrote at the time. The use of cannabinoids with GEM helped slow the growth of these cancer cells in the pancreas.

2015: Fighting Non-Melanoma Skin Cancer

Where melanoma is responsible for 80% of skin cancer-related deaths, non-melanoma skin cancer accounts for the strong majority of skin cancer cases. Treatment usually involves surgically removing the tumor, but cannabis has shown promise as a supplemental treatment.

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This was evident in a 2015 study in the United States. The study found that the non-melanoma cancer skills suffered from oxidative stress, which ultimately led to programmed cell death – eliminating the cancer from the body.

2020: Fighting Leukemia Cells

In 2020, researchers at the University of Newcastle and Hunter Medical Research Institute (in Australia) found that a ‘modified form of medicinal cannabis can kill or inhibit cancer cells without impacting normal cells,’ according to a published study.

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They specifically used leukemia cells to demonstrate this – and while it killed the leukemia cells, it didn’t harm white blood cells or normal bone marrow cells. “We then realised there was a cancer-selective mechanism involved, and we’ve spent the past couple of years trying to find the answer,” they wrote at the time.

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Ryan Handson

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