Cannabis for glioblastomas – how it treats the aggressive tumor

Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM) or glioma is a rare and aggressive type of brain cancer which affects nearly 11,000 patients each year.

Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for this cancer and over ninety percent of those patients who are diagnosed end up dying within the first five years of diagnosis and only ten percent of patients live past five years. The encouraging role of cannabis for glioblastomas can provide hope for patients suffering with GBM.

Characteristics of glioblastoma

Since the tumor is aggressive, it can develop, grow, and spread at an alarming rate. There is currently no cure, but there are treatments to manage the symptoms, which includes surgical resection, radiation, and chemotherapy.

GBM is an astrocytoma, which means it comes from astrocytes, one of the primary cells of the brain and it takes a star-like shape. It usually starts in the cerebrum, the largest part of the adult brain. The tumors make their own blood supply, which helps them develop and spread, and makes it easier for them to invade normal brain cells, even crossing to the other side of the brain hemisphere. It does this by mainly following white matter pathways.

The tumor is usually asymptomatic, which means the patient will not feel anything wrong with them until the tumor reaches a large size. Symptoms, when they do manifest, include seizures, headaches, nausea, vomiting, difficulty with balance, urinary incontinence, and memory loss among other neurological problems.

Risk factors seem to indicate age, with the onset of developing the tumor increasing with age. Gliomas are most common in adults between ages 45 and 65 years old. Another risk factor seems to be exposure to radiation like ionizing radiation from radiation therapy or exposure caused by atomic bombs. However, radiation from microwaves and other electromagnetic fields do not seem to exacerbate the tumors. Yet another risk factor seems to be family history of glioblastomas, which can double the risk of onset.

Diagnostic measures include imaging like MRI and CT scans and neurological examinations by a neurologist. A biopsy can also be taken to confirm diagnosis.

Treatment includes surgery, which is considered to be first line, to remove as much of the tumor as possible. Some tumors, however, are inoperable due to the extensive nature of the invasiveness, without damaging other brain tissue. Radiation is also used to kill as much of the tumor cells as possible, along with chemotherapy, which can be taken orally in a pill form or intravenously through a needle and syringe.

Many prevalent politicians have been diagnosed with GBM, including Beau Biden, son of former Vice President Joe Biden, who succumbed to the cancer in 2015. Ted Kennedy also succumbed to GBM in 2009. Currently, Senator John McCain was diagnosed with GBM and underwent surgery to treat the malignancy.

Cannabis for glioblastomas

Cannabidiol (CBD) oil is being researched to see how effective it would be in treating GBM. Researchers at Columbia University have discovered that CBD has the potential to increase death of GBM cells in response to radiation therapy—without causing similar cell death in normal brain cells.

CBD along with tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) have the ability to inhibit the growth of glioma as well as neutralize other cancer related cell activities.

Cannabinoids are also useful in treating the side effects of cancer treatment like nausea and vomiting. Some patients who are unable to eat solid food also found that cannabis treatment helped them to intake food easily.

In addition, some anti-tumor effect of THC increased in combination with co-administration of CBD, thereby making the drug even more effective. CBD and THC when also administered with  temozolomide chemotherapy (TMZ) was also seen to be more effect than TMZ on its own.

Currently, physicians are using nabilone and dronabinol, two medications with cannabinoids in them, to treat patients since cannabis is not federally approved for use in treatment. However, these medications may not be as effective as natural cannabis, which our bodies have a biological adherence for due to the endocannabinoid system.

With all of these promising studies coming out regarding cannabinoids in the treatment of GBM, the prognosis for patients seems to be looking up. Perhaps a cure can be found for such an aggressive tumor which provides little hope of survival to those that are diagnosed with it.