Marijuana as a possible treatment for HIV and cancer

There’s been some interesting research on using THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the principal psychoactive drug in marijuana, to help fight HIV, and damage cancer cells in some leukemias and possibly malignant tumors.

This research is still just that, research, and is years away from actually being used to control HIV. But the possibility exists that information from both of these research studies may produce beneficial results in the treatment of HIV and cancer.

Let me walk you through the studies.

Marijuana

Marijuana via Shutterstock

How macrophages spread HIV in your system

Macrophages are a specific type of white blood cell that is often targeted by HIV when an infection begins. Macrophages have several functions. One is that they act as scavengers. They move through tissues, picking up tiny particles of debris (or viruses), destroy dead or damaged cells, send out signals to lymphocytes, etc. When they pick up viruses, they may continue to travel around as they normally do. If a macrophage has already been targeted by HIV in your system, as the macrophage moves through your body it can spread HIV to uninfected cells.

So the ability to slow or stop HIV entry into the macrophages could drastically slow the spread of the HIV virus to uninfected cells.  But how do we do that?  Enter THC.

How THC might be able to stop macrophages from spreading HIV

Cells have any number of different receptors and receptor types on their cell membranes. When something that is specific to that receptor binds there (think of a specific key fitting into a specific lock) it signals the cell to do something – produce a chemical, move away, activate a gene, etc.

Among the many different types of receptors on macrophages (and other cells) are CB1 and CB2 receptors. When marijuana is smoked, THC activates both of these receptors. When the CB1 receptor is activated in certain cells, the classic marijuana “high” is produced. Activation of the CB2 receptor doesn’t produce the marijuana “buzz”.

In macrophages, activating the CB2 receptor makes them more effective at resisting HIV infection. These macrophages are then less likely to pick up the HIV virus even when exposed to it at fairly high concentrations.

The chemicals that the researchers from Temple University School of Medicine used are similar to THC, and work in a similar manner. The investigators feel that a drug may be developed that will selectively stimulate the CB2 receptors, and not produce the psychoactive effects of smoking marijuana.

To date, this research has only been done in white blood cells in tissue culture. Much more work is needed before human trials can even be considered.

The above research was published last May and work is continuing.

THC and Cancer

In a journal article from just this month, researchers in Louisiana demonstrated another benefit of THC in viral infections. It has been known for a few years that THC (and possibly some other compounds in marijuana) are effective in not only working against HIV, but also playing a role in doing damage to cancer cells in some types of leukemias and possibly malignant tumors.

The researchers from Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center used THC in male rhesus monkeys. The monkeys were first given an intravenous dose of simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), the rhesus’ equivalent of HIV. The monkeys were confirmed to have acquired the infection. Next, they were given intramuscular injections of THC twice a day for 17 months.

Samples of duodenal (small bowel) tissue were taken. The results showed that the monkeys’ duodenal tissue had a higher level of memory T cells and Th2 cytokines (regulating the immune response.) The THC medicated monkeys also showed a lower viral load than their control counterparts.

In various parts of the intestines, there are localized areas of lymphoid tissue, called Gut-Associated Lymphoid Tissue (GALT). HIV infects this tissue and reproduces there. The virus can then spread from the areas of GALT to other cells and tissues. And, it can cause gut inflammation and local problems with the bowel, as well.

So, the injections of THC had direct, positive effects on these three things: larger numbers of T cells, higher Th2 cytokines and lower viral load. With additional research, it may be that THC, or some form of it, may be useful as a drug to decrease the spread of HIV in an already infected patient.


Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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  • Sergio McGeez

    Love this! Thanks for putting this together and sharing! Marijuana is very helpful….

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  • flocculent

    I totally agree with your first point, and truly hope you’re right on the last.

  • docsterx

    That might be a possibility. But, with MJ use becoming legal and multiple medicinal uses being discovered, it may increase the interest of drug companies to pursue research with a goal to market. There are over 100 canabinoids and derivatives. Some may be much more effective than THC in producing a desired effect, e.g. stimulating appetite or decreasing nausea. Big Pharma might become interested in those and bankroll significant research.

    Also, with the advent of the internet (after those studies you mentioned in the ’80s) I think that it would be somewhat more difficult to even attempt to skew results.

  • docsterx

    It seems as if research money is becoming somewhat more available for research using MJ for a variety of medical uses. Please see my reply to flocculent, below.

  • docsterx

    Hi, flocculent,

    You raise a number of good and interesting points. Let me say a few
    things in general.

    First, I’m not overly excited about the results.
    They ARE interesting, but not earth-shattering. 

A few things that I
    find fascinating about MJ research in general.

    When there was almost no clinical research on MJ, everyone believed that it was bad: COPD, lung CA risk, addiction, etc. As research grows (no pun intended) and
    funding increases, there are more and more interesting things being
    discovered about cannabinoids. And most are favorable.

    Also, an acquaintance of mine in the basic sciences does research that uses some
    THC derivatives in an oncology-related bit of research. He used to find it almost impossible to get grant money if THC were written anywhere in the proposal. Not as true now.
    So maybe the research is starting to loosen up the coffers.

    I’m not advocating smoking MJ for HIV treatment or prophylaxis (or to be
    tried out for home chemotherapy, either). I do think that it can be
    beneficial for other aspects of those diseases and others.

    As to the studies I mentioned. I’m trying to share some research information on a blog
    for some readers who might have an interest in medical topics. I’m
    trying to digest, condense and simplify for the people who are reading
    and give them whatever links I can if they want to pursue additional
    information on the subject(s). To that end, I don’t provide a rigorous
    scientific review of the data. That wouldn’t be appropriate for a blog
    post. For example, on the macrophage paper, I could have done a longer explanation
    of macrophage function and phagocytosis. Had I done that, I’m sure that
    I would have bored, confused and/or lost a number of readers. Many of your
    points, while germane, would be arcane to the readers and require
    definitions and examples that would make this much too technical. For example, how many AB readers would be able to clearly follow (or be interested in) your more technical statements above? There are some, naja, monoceros and a few others. But, in the main, I believe most would not be interested.

    You mentioned THC being a “shitty” oncolytic. True. But in oncology sometimes doctors use drugs that aren’t very effective. Or sometimes patients demand that “something” be done. Some of the adjuvant therapies, for example. Or some of the chemotherapy drugs that might only extend life for a few months. But, nearing the end of life, some people want
    everything done, even if it may be only remotely beneficial.

    The technical issues that you mention are valid (e.g. lack of serum viral load). There
    are other issues with the papers that could be mentioned as well e.g. the N for
    the rhesus study is tiny, virtually making this anecdotal information.
    But again, this is a blog post. To my way of thinking, this post should be the equivalent of
    something that the audience reads in a newspaper or a magazine (not a
    journal). The focus is presenting some recent scientific developments in the field without becoming overly technical.

    Your comments are mostly spot on and I do appreciate them, however. Thanks.

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  • ComradeRutherford

    “In the 80′s THC studies were intentionally set up by the FDA to make the THC arm fail.”

    Indeed, the ‘Chromosome Damage” study involved placing some genetic material in a petri dish and pouring in chemically pure THC in radically high dose concentrations and then claiming that natural amounts of THC in the plants would have the same effect.

    Numerous studies were stopped when they weren’t getting the results they wanted, too. Such as the pulmonary irritation one where the lungs showed no serious effect and in some areas of the lung it seemed to help!

  • ComradeRutherford

    Wow. Good detail.

    Science in this area has been purposefully stunted since Saint Reagan Just Said No to medical research into cannabis.

    We are 32 years behind in this field, these preliminary studies are just the start.

    And anecdotal evidence sure does indicate something good is going on…

  • ComradeRutherford

    All the more reason for Obama to direct the FDA to use science when placing drugs on the schedule list.

    Maybe Obama won’t do it because the DEA has made it clear they’d ‘Kennedy’ him…?

  • 2karmanot

    The sooner the war on drugs is eliminated the better. Marijuana is a healer and a reliever of suffering and pain–not to mention delightful and mellow. Never far in the background is the shadow of Puritans building hard steel cities and not human utopias.

  • FLL

    Medical marijuana is on the November ballot this year here in Florida. I have no doubt that it will win the required 60% of the vote. The popular support for medical marijuana in Florida is overwhelming. 20 states currently allow medical marijuana, and Florida will make 21.

  • Shepherd Yerusalem

    The truth is the ONLY thing dangerous about marijuana are the cops who shoot people for having it:

    Number of American deaths per year that result directly or primarily from the following selected causes nationwide, according to World Almanacs, Life Insurance Actuarial (death) Rates, and the last 20 years of U.S. Surgeon Generals’ reports.

    TOBACCO – 340,000 to 450,000

    ALCOHOL (Not including 50% of all highway deaths and 65% of all murders) – 150,000+

    ASPIRIN (Including deliberate overdose) – 180 to 1,000+

    CAFFEINE (From stress, ulcers, and triggering irregular heartbeats, etc.) – 1,000 to 10,000

    “LEGAL” DRUG OVERDOSE (Deliberate or accidental) from legal, prescribed or patent medicines and/or mixing with alcohol – e.g. Valium/alcohol – 14,000 to 27,000

    ILLICIT DRUG OVERDOSE – (Deliberate or accidental) from all illegal drugs – 3,800 to 5,200

    MARIJUANA – 0

    (Marijuana users also have the same or lower incidence of murders and highway deaths and accidents than the general non-marijuana using population as a whole. Cancer Study, UCLA; U.S. Funded ($6 million), First & Second Jamaican Studies, 1968 to 1974; Costa Rican Studies, 1980 to 1982; et al. LOWEST TOXICITY 100% of the studies done at dozens of American universities and research facilities show pot toxicity does not exist. Medical history does not record anyone dying from an overdose of marijuana (UCLA, Harvard, Temple, etc.)

  • cole3244

    if alcohol is legal all drugs should be legal, controlled, and taxed.

  • mpeasee

    Great news Mark, and thanks for sharing. It is great to see “research” being done on cannabis, cannabis has been subjected to ad hominem for all of the 20th century, I wish we had the same amount of research for cannabis as we do for radiation treatment.

  • Indigo

    In Corporate America all drugs are illegal until reduced to pharmaceutical profit, then they’re approved for people who can afford them.

  • flocculent

    Hi Mark,

    I support decriminalization of cannabis, and increases in cannabis research funding. After reading your story, I looked at these abstracts (full text is behind a paywall, so I will get those when I get to my lab). I’m having a hard time getting quite as excited about the data as you.

    We hear this “cannabis kills cancer” argument all the time, but always when things get fleshed out, THC is a comparatively shitty oncolytic. I suspect the same is true for its antiviral and immunomodulatory activities.

    In one paper you cite, all work is in vitro, and THC appears to be cytostatic until washed out, then the cells undergo what sounds like apoptosis. I’ll have to look at the details (exposure, time course, medium additives, vehicle controls, positive controls, etc.), but in my experience, this isn’t a huge surprise, and will be difficult to extrapolate to NHP or patients.

    In another linked paper, SIV is used as a surrogate for HIV (did the authors really claim that?). IIRC, the two viral diseases are demonstrably not the same. SIV behaves differently even in rhesus vs. chimps, so extrapolation to humans is a really tenuous proposition. Also, GALT is used as a surrogate tissue (relevance?); and immune cell abundance and phenotypic skewing are used as a surrogate for overall immune system integrity and, presumably anti-viral activity (also a stretch?).

    The same paper then uses gene expression as an endpoint, which more often than not is a cheaper but lower return strategy compared to IHC and protein biomarkers. Although lower viral load in GALT is indeed heading in the right direction, the authors don’t address viral load in other key tissues (blood, for example), so the findings may be true but irrelevant. The same applies to the Th2 skewing in GALT. It may be irrelevant to the overall disease course, especially for HIV.

    Given all the thin branches here, I’d not go too far out on a limb on this “weed cures all” bandwagon. It will be difficult to determine whether any of these surrogate endpoints are at all relevant or translatable to HIV therapy.

    There are lots of reasons top let AIDS patients toke, but I wouldn’t hold these fair to middlin’ papers be the basis for my argument. Show me some epidemiology or randomized clinical trials, then I’ll get excited.

    .

  • http://buddybest.tripod.com/index.html BuddyNovinski

    If’s no secret that marijuana has some medicinal purposes. Even tobaaco has some, but i would not recommend either as a habit. Nonetheless, there seems to be a boost in the immune system, of which some herbs have a similar effect. That boost would exploain the effect on HIV and cancer.

  • bkmn

    Very interesting research. My biggest fear though is that the ingrained nature of the war on drugs in our government will find a way to screw up the research. In the 80′s THC studies were intentionally set up by the FDA to make the THC arm fail. Since the government underwrites much of this original type of research there are still elements deep in the system that would love to set up another failure.

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