Inside the Clinical Trials Using Cannabis for Cancer Treatments
Cannabis-based cancer studies aren’t difficult to find. After a quick internet search anyone can come across scientific papers concluding that high doses of CBD and THC could significantly regress tumors or that cannabis compounds boost pancreatic cancer survival times threefold.
What’s less easy to come across are the clinical studies carried out on human subjects. Because thanks to the US’s Controlled Substance Act, cannabis is officially thought to have “no currently accepted medical use,” a classification that impedes any human-based research.
And so, state-side at least, cannabis-cancer research has been carried out largely on animal models, which offer a limited window into the plant’s potential oncological benefits in human treatment. Fortunately, other countries are a little more inclusive.
In Israel, which has some of the most progressive cannabis policies in the world, one pharmaceutical company hasn’t just completed a single cannabis-based clinical trial, but two. And it’s already prepping for more.
“We hear anecdotally that cannabis has anti-tumor properties,” says Eyal Barad, CEO of Cannabics Pharmaceuticals, a US pharmaceutical company with cancer research labs in Israel. “And our endpoint is to develop cannabis-based medicines for anti-tumor therapy.”
Able to flourish in Israel’s more relaxed regulatory environment, Cannabics is one of the few institutions in the world that can boast conducting two cannabis-based clinical trials to treat cancers. “We’re licensed by the Ministry of Health to conduct R&D in cannabinoids,” Eyal explains. “So we’re probably the only ones in the world doing this.”
But unique research comes with unique challenges. Due to cannabis’ notoriously complex matrix, and coupled with cancer’s high heterogeneity, the data the Cannabics team produce from their experiments would take years to manually sift through. It’s no surprise, then, that the company are also at the forefront of artificial intelligence and automated screening in the cannabis industry.
“We use high-throughput screening to save time and money in order to really optimize drugs for delivery and efficacy,” says Eyal. “So we’re using cell lines and screening them against different cannabinoid concentrations of whole-plant extracts. And after 6-9 hours, we take those images of the cells and see how they’re being affected while looking for 8,000 different parameters on each image that we’re analyzing. And through the big data, there’s AI to come up with predictive therapy.”
Primed with cutting-edge machine learning algorithms, Eyal’s team are attempting to integrate environmental, lifestyle, and genomic data to develop highly personalized models of patients’ cells, to help better inform their cannabinoid-based treatments.
“So, we hope to roll out a diagnostic product,” he says. “Our aim in the short term is to be able to take biopsies from patients in hospitals here in Israel to be able to run high-throughput screenings with cannabinoids. And there’s no one in the world doing that. We’ll be the first ones in Israel taking fresh biopsies and doing any sort of drug sensitivity testing on them. And blood samples would be a great way of helping to choose which type of cannabis [the patients] should be consuming for their cancers. That’s our aim, initially.”
And it’s an aim that could not only interest cancer patients, but cancer specialists, too. According to a recent survey published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology, 94 percent of dermatologists believe researching the dermatological uses of cannabinoids is worthwhile, yet 48 percent are concerned about the negative stigma associated with prescribing cannabinoid therapies to patients.
As any cannabis research on human subjects in US universities still lies under the threat of federal funding withdrawal, the work conducted in the more regulatory lax Israel may be the best hope of legitimizing this burgeoning field of cannabis-cancer science and giving confidence to cancer specialists everywhere in marijuana’s oncological benefits.
“I’m very optimistic,” says Eyal. “I’ve been in this industry for quite some time and I just see daily advancements. The train has already left the station and I don’t think there is any train back.”
“The major thing is obviously the US changing the regulation which will leave the rest of the world to follow. We see the same in the CBD market. So I think there are still huge opportunities. And I really think that mankind has been done wrong for preventing this by prohibition and not allowing us to be using cannabis.”