Medical cannabinoids and brain tumours – Interview with Dr Wai Liu
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Dr Wai Liu is a Senior Research Fellow at St George’s, University of London, who has been investigating medical cannabinoids and their potential anticancer properties.
Dr Liu led a small research group at St Bartholomew’s Hospital investigating the anticancer properties in 2001. Anecdotal evidence presented to him suggested that cannabis could improve the responses to some therapies in patients with cancer. This led to more research studying the anticancer effects of cannabidiol (better known as CBD) in a variety of cancer types used both alone and in combination with other treatment modalities.
According to the research at St George’s, cannabinoids – the active chemicals in cannabis – have been confirmed to contain anticancer properties and are the most beneficial when combined with chemotherapy drugs.
I caught up with Dr Liu at event on medical cannabinoids and brain tumours in London, organised by our Member Charity brainstrust, and asked him a few questions so we could bring some more useful information to our community on this topical subject.
Does the research point towards CBD needing THC (tetrahydrocannabinol – the psychoactive constituent of cannabis) element in order to be effective for brain tumours?
Dr Liu: This is not so clear. There is no doubt that in the lab, THC has anticancer action. In a similar way, CBD has too. Using the two together seems to result in good activity, but the level of action is not necessarily synergistic, thus I suspect the two compounds do not actually require each other to work effectively.
You suggested in your research that it will never be the case of CBD alone – brain tumour trials need to allow for multiple agents in combination (such as chemotherapy drugs) . which is so hard to design in terms of a trial. Is that correct?
Dr Liu: Depending on the questions asked, combination trials can be relatively straightforward. For example, if you test only two drugs – the arms of the trials may be something like Drug A without CBD and Drug A with CBD.
What clinical trials are currently taking place, any plans linked to brain tumours?
Dr Liu: Very few – an up-to-date list will be on the Clinical Trials website.
Are clinicians prescribing CBD as part of the treatment for brain tumours? What are the barriers for brain tumour patients accessing CBD?
Dr Liu: Some clinicians are prescribing CBD, but this would not be on the NHS and so would be quite expensive. Apart from this way, it can be difficult to get official CBD from doctors.
The fundamental barrier for patients is the lack of full clinical trials confirming activity in patients. Without this ‘badge’, clinicians will rarely prescribe something that has no official clinical value. Once the trials in the UK are completed, depending upon results, access will almost certainly improve.
We know that some clinicians are advocating for medical cannabinoids to be prescribed as a standard for brain tumour patients to treat headaches and seizures, as well any cancer-related side effects – are there plans to expand guidelines so patients can readily access medical cannabinoids?
Dr Liu: Not sure; but it seems sensible that a drug that can help should be made available to patients that could benefit from using it. I understand there has to be legislation to ensure safety, but time is of the essence!
We thank Dr Liu for his time and answering my questions.
The research priorities at our Centres of Excellence are based on finding ways to innovate new curative treatments for brain tumours which will likely have the best outcomes for patients.
We are not currently funding any research into cannabinoids but recognise that the use of these for the management of brain tumours is an important topic and we will continue to closely monitor the ongoing developments in this area, including contributing to governmental Inquiries and consultations where possible.
Keep coming back to our website for our latest blogs and news on this subject, and if you subscribe to our e-news and/or follow us on Facebook and Twitter you’ll hopefully never miss any of our updates.
Image credit: St George’s, University of London
Medical cannabinoids and brain tumours – Interview with Dr Wai Liu Blog categories Campaigning Celebrities Fundraising Guest blogs News Research Tributes
Updated on April 1, 2020. Medical content reviewed by Dr. Joseph Rosado, MD, M.B.A, Chief Medical Officer
Despite the many, constant advancements in cancer medicine, there still isn’t any proven cure for the disease as of yet. However, medical marijuana and brain tumors treatment is stepping up and joining hands with conventional treatments to offer patients some relief from the sometimes disabling effects of radiation, chemo and other unfavorable treatment methods.
What Are Brain Tumors?
Brain tumors are growths or masses of abnormal brain cells.
The rate at which a brain tumor grows will vary. How it develops, as well as where it’s located, determine how it affects your nervous system function.
The exact cause of brain tumors remains unknown, but researchers have established some known risk factors. For example, kids who receive head radiation have a greater risk of adult brain tumor development later on.
Also, those with Li-Fraumeni syndrome, neurofibromatosis or another rare genetic condition have a higher risk. But, these cases make up only a mere fraction of the estimated 78,980 new diagnosed brain tumors every year in the U.S., according to the National Brain Tumor Society.
Types of Brain Tumors
Many different brain tumor types exist. Some are benign, while others are malignant. Primary brain tumors begin in your brain, while secondary, or metastatic, brain tumors start in other body parts, but spread to your brain.
Physicians refer to tumors based on if they’re malignant or benign and where the tumor cells started. Let’s take a closer look.
Benign brain tumors are the least aggressive type of tumors in the brain. They:
- Start off from the cells surrounding or within your brain
- Grow slowly
- Don’t contain cancer cells
- Normally have clear borders that don’t spread into any other tissue
Malignant brain tumors do have cancer cells and typically don’t have clear borders. They can be life-threatening, since they quickly grow and attack surrounding brain tissue.
These tumors begin in your brain cells. They might spread to your spine or other brain parts, but don’t usually spread to your other organs.
Also called secondary brain tumors, metastatic tumors start in other parts of your body before spreading to your brain. They’re named after the area where they started, and are more common than the primary brain tumors.
According to the National Brain Tumor Society, more than 120 different brain tumor types exist. Below are five common types.
- Gliomas: Gliomas are primary brain tumors and the most common of them. They are a type of tumor you get in your spinal cord and brain. They start in the supportive cells known as your glial cells that surround nerve cells and help them function. Around a third of primary brain tumors, as well as other tumors of the nervous system, develop from glial cells.
- Acoustic neuroma: Also referred to as vestibular schwannoma, acoustic neuromas are typically slow-growing and noncancerous tumors that develop on your vestibular nerve stretching from your brain to your inner ear.
- Pituitary tumors: These are irregular growths that form in the pituitary gland. Some result in excessive hormones that regulate essential body functions.
- Brain metastases: These occur when you have cancer cells spreading to your brain from their initial area. Any cancers may spread to your brain. However, certain types are more likely to result in brain metastases, such as breast, lung, melanoma, colon and kidney cancers.
- Pediatric brain tumors: These tumors are growths or masses of irregular cells occurring in children’s brains or neighboring structures or tissues. Various pediatric brain tumors exist — both malignant and benign.
History of Brain Tumors
Cancer isn’t a new disease. In fact, evidence of tumors has occurred in Egyptian mummies and fossilized bones. Throughout history, even way back in 3000 BCE, people have been noting cancer occurrences. Ancient surgical manuscripts report eight breast cancer cases stating there’s no treatment. Since then, people have learned a lot about cancer and have made outstanding advances to treat patients. For many cancers today, the outlook isn’t so bleak.
Symptoms of Brain Tumors
The symptoms and signs of brain tumors depend on their location, size and growth rate. Brain tumor symptoms can be specific or general. Tumor pressure on the spinal cord or brain causes general symptoms. And, when the tumor causes a certain area of your brain not to work well, it causes specific symptoms. Many individuals with a brain tumor received their diagnoses after visiting their doctor complaining of some problems like balance issues, headaches or other types of changes.
The general symptoms brain tumors cause may include:
- Headaches slowly becoming more severe and more frequent
- A new change in pattern or onset of headaches
- Difficulty with balance
- Unexplained vomiting or nausea
- Speech difficulties
- Vision problems, like double vision, blurred vision or peripheral vision loss
- Hearing problems
- Confusion in daily matters
- Gradual loss of movement or sensation in a leg or arm
- Seizures, particularly in a person who doesn’t have a seizure history
- Behavior or personality changes
If you experience symptoms persistently concerning to you, schedule an appointment with your physician.
Effects of Brain Tumors
Your brain controls all of your body functions, including hearing, vision, movement and speech. As cancer in your brain grows, it begins to press on and damage areas in your brain that control these things, which may lead to both physical and mental complications such as:
- Memory or personality changes
- Loss of mental function or brain capacity
- Nutrition depletion
- Hearing loss
- Muscle paralysis
- Speech problems
Younger patients frequently experience the late effects of their treatment for brain cancer throughout their childhood. For pediatric ependymoma survivors, along with the complications previously listed, these neurological symptoms and late effects may include:
- Abnormal growth
- Cognitive delay
- Learning disabilities
- Hormone deficiencies
- Auditory and visual problems
- Early or delayed puberty
- Physical disabilities
- The potential for developing a second cancer
You may also struggle with diagnosis and treatment stress-related emotional problems.
Brain Tumor Statistics
According to the American Brain Tumor Association, brain tumor statistics as of January 2018 include:
- Experts expect to see 80,000 new primary brain tumor cases this year.
- Around 32 percent of central nervous system and brain tumors are malignant.
- Around 700,000 individuals in the U.S. are living with a central nervous system or primary brain tumor.
- This year, more than 16,000 individuals will die from a central nervous system or primary malignant brain tumor.
Current Treatments Available for Brain Tumors and Their Side Effects
Your treatment options for a brain tumor will depend on what type and size of tumor you have and its location.
Sometimes, a tumor is so easy and small to separate from the neighboring brain tissue, it makes the option of surgery possible. In other situations, the surgeon can’t separate the tumor from the neighboring tissue, or the tumor sits next to sensitive brain areas, making surgery risky. When this occurs, the surgeon will try and eliminate as much of your tumor as they safely can.
The surgeon can reduce your symptoms by eliminating only a small part of your tumor. No matter what, though, surgery for removing any brain tumor does come with risks like bleeding and infection. Other risks will depend on the area of the brain where your tumor sits. For example, if your tumor is close to the nerves connecting your eyes, the surgery could come with the risk of vision loss.
Chemotherapy and Radiation Therapy
In some cases, the surgeon can’t surgically remove a tumor due to its location in your brain. In these cases, you may require radiation therapy or chemotherapy to shrink or kill the tumor. Sometimes, the surgeon may use radiation or chemo after your surgery to kill any cancer cells remaining. If your tumor is deep in your brain or hard for the surgeon to access, the doctor may use an extremely focused radiation treatment known as gamma knife therapy.
Targeted Drug Therapy
Targeted drug therapy involves treatments to target specific irregularities in your cancer cells. When targeted drug treatments block the irregularities, they may induce cancer cell death.
Targeted therapy medications are available for specific brain tumor types, and more clinical trials are including more of these drugs to study. Various types of targeted therapy continue to pop up.
Your doctor may recommend rehabilitation after your treatment. Recovery may involve you working closely with a few different therapists like:
- Speech therapists to work on problems with expressing thoughts, speaking or swallowing
- Physical therapists to help you regain balance and strength
- Occupational therapists to assist you in managing everyday activities, like bathing, using the bathroom and dressing
Since a brain tumor develops in your brain parts controlling speech, motor skills, thinking and vision, rehabilitation could be an important part of your recovery.
There hasn’t been much research on alternative and complementary treatments for brain tumors. There aren’t any alternative treatments shown to cure a brain tumor, either. However, complementary treatments could help you deal and cope better with brain tumor diagnosis-related stress.
Some complementary therapies you could try to help you cope include:
- Music therapy
- Art therapy
- Relaxation exercises
Discuss your options with your doctor.
How and Why Marijuana Can Be an Effective Treatment for Brain Tumors
Studies show cannabinoids such as THC have anti-cancer properties. In 2009, Spanish researchers found THC induced brain cancer cell death, or autophagy, a normal physiological process dealing with body cell destruction.
After researchers administered THC to mice models with human tumors, the THC seemed to initiate autophagy and resulted in a decrease in tumor growth. Two human brain tumor patients whose tumors were highly aggressive received intracranial THC administration. Upon analysis, both showed similar autophagy signs. The research confirmed — medical marijuana kills brain tumors, not your healthy brain tissue.
So, how does it do this? It seems THC works in two ways to kill glioblastoma cells. Along with other cannabinoids, it cuts off the blood supply to the tumor and causes the cancerous cells to self-destruct.
Death by Starvation
Researchers in 2004 found medical weed changes genes creating the Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor (VEGF) compound, which helps with the growth of new blood vessels. As the cancer cells begin growing larger, they start developing blood vessels.
The researchers treated both the two human patients with brain cancer and the mice with cannabinoid medications. VEGF decreased in both models and limited the blood supply to the tumor.
Another huge discovery concerning medical marijuana for brain tumors was that cannabinoids can also kill cancerous cells. The herb’s compounds prevent existing tumors from growing by cutting off their supply of blood, starving them and eventually causing the self-destruction of the cancer cells. Scientists refer to this self-destruction as “programmed cell death.”
What Side Effects and Symptoms of Brain Tumors Can Medical Marijuana Treat?
Not only can marijuana and brain tumors treatment help treat brain cancer itself through the ways mentioned above, but it’s particularly useful in treating the side effects of certain cancer treatments. Some treatment side effects may include:
- Memory loss
- Pain from surgery
There are plenty more, but these are just some of the common side effects of treatments for cancer weed can help.
Best Strains of Marijuana to Use for Brain Tumor Symptoms and Treatment Side Effects
Cancer is a heavily researched and complex medical disease that still has limited answers and no official cure. However, today, various medical pot studies worldwide have found a wide range of therapeutic and healing benefits of medical cannabis for brain tumors, particularly helping with some conventional cancer treatment symptoms.
Because of this, budtenders all over the world are creating different strains to come up with a wide range of medicinal strains for patients with cancer or any other type of medical condition. Some good marijuana and brain tumor strains to try include:
- ACDC (hybrid)
- Blackberry Kush (Indica)
- Harlequin (Sativa)
- Blueberry Diesel (hybrid)
- Northern Lights (Indica)
- Super Lemon Haze (Sativa)
Loss of Appetite
- Bubba Kush (Indica)
- Skywalker OG (hybrid)
- Granddaddy Purple (Indica)
- Super Silver Haze (Sativa)
- Chernobyl (hybrid)
- Pennywise (Indica)
- Strawberry Cough (Sativa)
- Pineapple Express (hybrid)
- Chocolope (Sativa)
Best Methods of Marijuana Treatment for the Side Effects and Symptoms of Brain Tumors
Even though medical weed can help decrease symptoms of various health conditions, it can also produce undesirable effects if misused. Like with tobacco and alcohol, there’s no “safe” amount of cannabis use in women who are breastfeeding or pregnant.
Therefore, before beginning your medical marijuana and brain tumors treatment, consult with your cannabis doctor about your particular situation to ensure cannabis is right for you and to give you some helpful advice. With this in mind, here are some popular delivery methods for your medical pot therapy.
- Smoking: remember, could have harmful effects on your lungs
- Vaping: not without possible adverse effects, but much better than smoking
- Sublingual sprays
- Skin ointments
- Cannabis oil
Experiment a little and see which cannabis and brain tumors method is right for you.
Becoming a Medical Marijuana Patient for Brain Tumors
So, you’re well-educated on the benefits of medical pot as your brain tumor treatment. Now, all you need to do is talk with a marijuana doctor to get the required recommendation and marijuana card. Then, you can start browsing through our cannabis directory and find some local dispensaries to get your herb promptly.
See how medical marijuana could help relieve brain turmor symptoms. Find patient reviews on local doctors and information on treatment options.