The federal health agency is awarding researchers $3.2 million to study the effects of using cannabis while receiving immunotherapy for cancer treatment, as well as whether access to marijuana helps reduce health disparities.
The University of Buffalo (UB) announced that one of its psychiatrists has received the research grant funding from the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Cancer Institute, which will go toward a year-long study to assess how the common cancer treatment is affected by patients’ cannabis use.
UB will be partnering Thomas Jefferson University and Oregon Health and Science University to carry out the study at three different sites, each recruiting 450 cancer patients who are being treated with immunotherapy, which carriers fewer side effects than chemotherapy and is meant to boost the body’s natural defenses protecting healthy cells.
According to UB, about 40 percent of cancer patients report using marijuana as a treatment option to reduce pain, improve mood and help them sleep. Yet there are “virtually no long-term studies evaluating its potential benefits and harms for persons treated with immunotherapy for cancer, despite cancer and its treatments being qualifying conditions in most of the 37 states and Washington, D.C., that have legalized adult use or medical cannabis,” principal investigator Rebecca Ashare said in a press release on Tuesday.
While the anti-inflammatory properties of certain cannabinoids is typically a “good thing,” particularly when it comes to reducing pain, that effect can also suppress immune function.
“There are concerns that cannabis might reduce the efficacy of immunotherapy,” Ashare said. “The demand for evidence is clear and this project represents an important first step in that process as both immunotherapy and cannabis use are becoming more widespread therapeutic options in oncology, accepted by many patients and physicians.”
— UB Psychology (@UB_Psychology) October 25, 2023
For the observational study, half of the participants will be cannabis consumers who will use their own products and the other half will be non-users. Researchers will examine “medical records, patient outcomes and blood samples at six different times over a one-year period.”
The NCI grant will also be used to study “the role of neighborhood disadvantage on outcomes related to cannabis use and immunotherapy.”
“We want to see if access to cannabis reduces health disparities,” Ashare said. “We have a strong multidisciplinary team with expertise in cancer symptom management, medical cannabis, health equity, oncology, immunology, and substance misuse. Overall this research will have a sustained impact on the science of cancer symptom management and ultimately improve patient care and safety.”
An NCI official spoke about the agency’s interest in promoting research into the relationship between cannabis and cancer treatment at a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) meeting last month. He said that while most oncologists have spoken with patients about marijuana, relatively few report being sufficiently knowledgable about the topic.
NCI also outlined areas of cannabis research into the issue that the agency is interested in funding in a notice published last year.
Meanwhile, a recent study found that consistent cannabis use is associated with improved cognition and reduced pain among cancer patients and people receiving chemotherapy.
The American Medical Association (AMA) also published research late last year that connected state cannabis legalization with reduced opioid prescribing for certain cancer patients.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.