Marijuana, brain cancer and the Hip’s green thumbs

The Tragically Hip announced their partnership with Newstrike, a Brantford-based marijuana producer, in May 2017.

“We are happy to announce that we have become partners with one of Canada’s newest, soon to be public, licensed producers of medicinal marijuana. The company is called Newstrike and, after much discussion and assessment on our part, we’ve decided that this company – and the many creative people in it – are a perfect fit for The Hip,” the band said at the time.

It’s a partnership that makes sense for the band: brain cancer patients, like Gord Downie, are very interested in the seemingly bright potential of pot to help not only ease the side effects of cancer treatment but might hold some promise on its own.

Marijuana, which becomes legal for recreational use in Canada on Oct. 17 (the anniversary of Gord’s passing), has cancer researchers in particular very intrigued. Sure, everyone’s heard of the appetite-improving qualities of having a puff or two, but it goes beyond that.

Brain cancer, marijuana and a seemingly promising future

Researchers in Spain found that THC, a component of marijuana, “triggers a cellular self-digestion process known as autophagy,” meaning it makes cancer cells eat themselves. At the same time, it doesn’t seem to bother healthy cells that surround tumors.

This is promising when taking into consideration that brain tumors, and glioblastoma key among them, have a tendency to grow in tight clusters and embed themselves into healthy tissue, making it even more difficult to treat or remove without damaging other parts of the brain.

But this was a small study, involving a handful of human patients and mice that were designed to carry human brain cancer tumors. In a 30-day study of two patients with glioblastoma, the researchers found a reduction in their tumor size after being treated with THC. “Using electron microscopes to analyze brain tissue taken both before and after a 26- and 30-day THC treatment regimen, the researchers found that THC eliminated cancer cells while it left healthy cells intact.” The team also was able to track the signaling route within the brain that activated the process.

In another study, researchers found that THC helped reduce tumor size by 50-95%, with the rare case showing complete elimination. “Although many questions, such as on optimized treatment schedules, are still unresolved, today’s scientific results suggest that cannabinoids could play an important role in palliative care of brain tumor patients.”

Green doesn’t mean go (yet)

There is also anecdotal information about the use of marijuana to help settle the nausea commonly associated with cancer treatments, of course, but medical research into the direct benefits or dangers of using pot in conjunction with other cancer treatments is still very limited.

In most cases, patients are adding marijuana consumption in any form on their own, either in consultation with their medical team or on their own. It’s way too soon to start proclaiming pot as a wonder drug for cancer, and for brain cancer in particular, especially as its legal status is still a patchwork of regulations around the world.

In Canada, of course, recreational use has been wink-and-nod “legal” for a long time, with the new law going into effect this year making it fully out in the open. Not all countries are as open minded, however: in the United States, nearly half the states have laws allowing some level of pot use, but most of those laws are related to medicinal pot which has to be prescribed. California’s medical marijuana laws are far more liberal than, say, New York’s, but who knows when or whether that would become a uniform national law.

Marijuana is a Schedule I controlled substance in the U.S., meaning it cannot legally be prescribed, possessed or sold under federal law, but products made from cannabidiol (CBD, another component in pot) are starting to pop up in everything from dietary supplements for humans to dog treats.

The American Cancer Society says that while marijuana has been used as a medicinal treatment for centuries, its effects vary based on how it’s consumed: When vaporized, a person feels the effects faster but for a shorter duration; when consumed orally (in gummies or cookies, etc), it takes longer to feel anything and it affects the brain in a different way.

Gord’s other legacy

The Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, where Downie had most of his treatment for glioblastoma starting in late 2015, has received more than $2.3 million in donations since his cancer was announced. The hospital has created the Gord Downie Fellowship in Brain Oncology and the construction of the G. Hurvitz Brain Sciences Centre for clinical and research space for doctors treating brain cancer patients.
Sarah Ironside was the first Gord Downie Fellow in Neruo Oncology at Sunnybrook. She’s one of a few female neuro oncologists in the country.
“Gord was an inspiration to so many Canadians in the way he so bravely and publicly shared his journey with brain cancer,” she said. “I’m starting out in my career and I hope by the time I retire we are managing the disease in a much different way and have better treatments and more options. I think the Gord Downie Fellowship, and the money that’s been raised by the generosity of so many Canadians, is an opportunity to make that happen.”

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