Rick Simpson Oil: Cancer Cure or Cannabis Con?
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What is Rick Simpson oil?
Rick Simpson oil is many things. It’s a cannabis extract that can be made at home from an easy recipe. It’s a popular product widely sold in dispensaries. And, for many believers, it’s the long-sought-after cure for cancer.
Named after the man who supposedly used the oil to cure his own skin cancer, Rick Simpson oil (RSO) has quickly become one of the most discussed and praised “cancer treatments” of modern times, all without a single prescription from a licensed doctor.
Type the term into a social media app and one can soon find hundreds of posts by those who’ve halted their chemotherapy and switched to the cannabis oil, or shunned radiotherapy to manage their brain tumor “naturally.”
Of course, this isn’t to disparage the community’s intentions; almost every Rick Simpson forum, comment section, and discussion board is bursting with empathetic responses to the stresses of living with cancer and a passion for the plant extract they believe is giving them relief.
But there is now a growing danger that these followers could be shunning the proven clinical treatments they desperately need and discrediting the still nascent field of cannabis science.
So, what are the "potential benefits?"
Rick Simpson's own website claims that the “natural medication can be used with great success to cure or control cancer, MS, pain, diabetes, arthritis, asthma, infections, inflammations, blood pressure, depression, sleeping problems, and just about any other medical issues that one can imagine.”
It's hard not to wonder, with medical mastery like that, why society would bother with doctors at all.
But despite Rick Simpson’s boundless confidence, his “medication” has yet to be proven as anything other than a cannabis extract. And as the community surrounding the oil continues to grow and validate its supposed powers, many doctors are concerned that their cancer patients are swapping their chemotherapy for cannabis therapy.
Rick Simpson oil: cancer cure?
“As an oncologist in San Francisco for the past forty years, I have to say, if cannabis cured cancer, I would certainly have a lot more survivors,” says Donald Abrams MD, professor of clinical medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
Abrams is no stranger to the medical benefits of cannabis.
As a practicing oncologist in California, he’s prescribed his fair share of cannabis products to patients in need of pain relief and has even reviewed cannabis scientific studies for the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine Committee.
“I write on whether oncologists should recommend cannabis and I'm a very strong proponent of it, because a day doesn't go by that I don't see a cancer patient with nausea, loss of appetite, pain, insomnia, depression, and I can recommend one medicine to those patients,” he tells Analytical Cannabis.
“And [cannabis] is less likely to interact with the other medications that I prescribe or my chemotherapy than standard pharmaceuticals. So, I am a huge proponent of the benefits of cannabis in symptom management.”
But using cannabis for pain relief alongside chemotherapy is one thing, and using it in isolation is another, according to the professor.
“What pains me is people forgoing conventional therapy that may benefit them greatly and even cure them, in favor of using these products that have absolutely no evidence to support their use,” he explains. “And in San Francisco, patients pay up to $7,000 a month for these products. I just find it criminal and tragic.”
Cannabis and cancer
While no scientific studies currently support Rick Simpson oil as a cannabis treatment, many advocates have found encouragement in the few promising studies involving cannabinoids and cancer.
One 2017 paper, for example, demonstrated that high doses of CBD and THC could significantly regress tumors in animal models. And another 2018 study showed that when treated with cannabis compounds and chemotherapy, mice with pancreatic cancer survived almost three times longer than those treated with chemotherapy alone.
But other studies have been less promising. In a more recent paper, CBD reduced the size of tumors in mice, but the cannabinoid’s effects still paled in comparison to cisplatin’s, a more conventional chemotherapy medication.
In fact, the only common factor among most cannabis-cancer studies is that they weren’t tested on humans at all. Because marijuana is still registered as a Schedule 1 drug under the US’s Controlled Substance Act, the plant and all its compounds are still regarded as having “no currently accepted medical use” by the federal government – a clause that has long hindered the progress of any cannabis study using human subjects.
But rather than furthering the case for such clinical trials, cannabis experts warn that the euphoria surrounding RSO is actually stymieing them.
“I think there is actually tremendous potential for cannabinoids in the management of cancer. But you need to have evidence supporting those claims, starting at the cell line to animal to human data, just like any approved drug,” says Adam Friedman, MD, professor of dermatology at the George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, DC.
“We've already faced a pretty difficult hurdle to even study cannabinoids in labs given the regulatory environment up until recently and it only makes it harder when someone like [Rick Simpson], with really no scientific foundation, makes these erroneous claims,” he says.
“And then when people are really trying to do the science, it undermines their credibility as well by association.”
Like other cannabis researchers, Friedman is concerned that the misinformation and pseudoscience surrounding Rick Simpson oil could be damaging cannabis science’s still fragile reputation and discrediting the precious few cannabis-cancer studies being conducted.
Studies like those currently being carried out by Cannabics Pharmaceuticals, a US-led pharmaceutical company with cancer research labs in Israel.
“We hear anecdotally that cannabis has anti-tumor properties,” Eyal Barad, Cannabics’s CEO, told Analytical Cannabis in June 2019. “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. “In the lab in Israel, where we’re licensed by the Ministry of Health to conduct R&D in cannabinoids, we’re using cell lines and then screening them against different cannabinoid concentrations of whole-plant extracts,” said Eyal.
And as the CEO explained, there’s quite a difference between creating a clinically proven cancer treatment and some homemade Rick Simpson oil.
“What we’re doing is very complex; we’re using cell lines and screening them against different cannabinoid concentrations of whole-plant extracts,” he said. “And after 6-9 hours, we’re taking images of the cells and seeing how they’re being affected while looking for 8,000 different parameters on each image that we’re analyzing.”
“And that’s part of the challenge. There are thousands of cancers, thousands of cannabinoid strains that each one has a different combination and each genetic makeup of each person, there are billions of different people and each one reacts differently.”
Primed with cutting-edge machine learning tools and free from the shackles of US restrictions, Eyal and his team could help bring the field of cannabis-derived cancer treatments to the fore of oncology.
But, of course, any promising clinical results will have to go through years of tests and regulations before they can become approved cannabis medications. And until such a day comes, any cannabis-based product, like Rick Simpson oil, that claims to be “cancer cure-all” will remain dangerous conjecture.
RSO, cancer, and the lure of cure-alls
“It's almost like cheating,” says Adam Freidman. “I think there is tremendous potential in this space. But you can't skip all those steps. Because if you're not going through all the necessary steps and hard work to elucidate how something works and to prove that it actually translates into the human system, that is lazy – that is cheating. And, honestly, who wants to follow the advice of a lazy cheater?”
Fortunately, most who use Rick Simpson oil as a cancer treatment don’t seem to be doing so in isolation. As far as online reports and community chatter make out, many treat the oil as an add-on to chemotherapy and other oncological treatments, likely with the belief that “it can’t hurt to try.”
Unfortunately, it just might.
“One thing that people are probably less aware of is that CBD is an inhibitor of the enzyme system in the liver that metabolizes pharmaceutical drugs and other botanical substances,” explains Donald Abrams.
“And if you take highly concentrated CBD by mouth, assuming that it does get into the system, it could inhibit that enzymes that breaks down pharmaceuticals, so a prescribed medication could build up in the bloodstream and have increased toxicity.”
Right now, as modern oncological science understands it, the best cancer treatments available are still those that an authorized doctor recommends. Of course, cannabis still remains a potent pain-relieving option for those undergoing chemotherapy, but its potential as a cancer treatment is still just that: a potential.
And for anyone who still ardently believes their Rick Simpson oil is treating their cancer, Abrams notes that there is an institution that will take such claims seriously and may even investigate them.
“I've always urged people who have so-called ‘cured their cancer’ using these products to use our National Cancer Institute and its best-case scenario initiative, where people can submit to the NCI reports in success in treating cancer with other than conventional means. And then our government might even consider doing research on those products,” he says. “But, as yet, I haven't heard of anybody submitting such a case.”