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Cancer scientists have recently turned their attention to a class of chemicals called cannabinoids. While marijuana is a well known source of cannabinoids – including THC and CBD – the body also produces some of its own.
The team, led by Barbara Adinolfi, Ph.D, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Pisa’s Department of Pharmacy, conducted experiments using one of these natural cannabinoids, anandamide (AEA), and human melanoma cells.
Their findings, published online in the European Journal of Pharmacology, showed anandamide had a toxic effect on cancer cells – even in small doses.
Overall, these findings demonstrate that AEA [anandamide] induces cytotoxicity against human melanoma cells in the micromolar range of concentrations.
Interestingly, the role of endocannabinoids – ‘endo’ stands for endogenous (i.e. made by the body) – in controlling cancer is not a new discovery.
As the authors note, endocannabinoids have been shown to “regulate both core and emerging hallmarks of cancer.” Previous studies show that the body produces more endocannabinoids in cancer and pre-cancer states.
But very few groups have studied their action in the case of skin melanoma – one of the most aggressive human cancers, according to the authors. And while cannabinoids seem to have a general anticancer effect against many cancers, their mechanisms of action have not been consistently identified.
In vitro and in vivo studies have shown that natural and synthetic cannabinoids are efficacious in reducing cancer progression, although the observed effects are complex and sometimes contradictory.
In the latest study, the authors were able to pinpoint mechanisms involved with anandamide’s anticancer activity. Unsurprisingly, activation of pathways that facilitate the effects of marijuana, CB1 receptors, played a major part.
While more studies need to be done, cancer researchers have been looking at ways of increasing natural cannabinoid levels or delivering plant-derived cannabinoids to targeted areas as new cancer therapies.
Skin cancer is often treatable with surgery, but more aggressive forms can spread quickly and are known to be resistant to traditional chemotherapy.
The study was published ahead of print and received funding from the Italian Anti-melanoma Association