Scientists have called for further research into the effect of cannabis compounds on cancer cells after a teenage boy who was given the drug by his mother survived the disease.
Callie Blackwell said she decided to give cannabis to her son Deryn, who was suffering from a rare, aggressive form of leukaemia, to ease his pain and anxiety as he lay dying in a hospice.
After unsuccessfully requesting a prescription for a cannabis-based painkiller from a doctor, Ms Blackwell and her husband Simon met a dealer in a service station to buy some cannabis, which they prepared at home in a pressure cooker using instructions found online.
“I thought: ‘what have I got to lose? He’s dying anyway’. The effects of it blew my mind. It wasn’t what I expected,” Ms Blackwell told ITV’s This Morning.
Ms Blackwell said she expected 14-year-old Deryn, who had undergone multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy following his diagnosis at the age of 10, to die when doctors said nothing else could be done.
But Deryn, who is now 17, made a gradual recovery and is now studying catering and has a part-time job as a vegan chef.
Cancer experts have warned stories like Deryn’s cannot prove the efficacy of one treatment over another until properly controlled clinical trials have taken place.
“There have been lots of studies looking at the effect of cannabis on cells growing in the lab, but that’s been quite mixed, it seems to have had different effects on different types of cancer cells,” said Emma Smith, science information manager for Cancer Research UK.
Dr Smith told The Independent Deryn’s recovery was “wonderful news”, but said: “It could have been a number of things. Perhaps cannabis did help, perhaps it didn’t.
“Because it’s just one person’s story, without a doctor analysing all the clinical evidence and comparing him to somebody that didn’t get cannabis, we still don’t know for certain it was the cannabis that helped him.”
Wai Liu, a senior cancer research fellow at St George’s University of London, has led research into the potential anti-cancer properties of chemicals found in cannabis such as cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
“I try and separate the science from clinical studies from anecdotal evidence, but there are certain compounds in cannabis, namely CBD and THC, which in a laboratory are anti-cancer in effect,” he said.
“There’s no two ways about it. What it does to certain cancer cells is precisely the same thing as drug companies are trying to develop.
“But the difficulty is always translating what we see in clinical and animal studies into what we see in humans.”
Dr Liu told The Independent he often received reports based on anecdotal evidence of people who self-prescribe cannabis.
“Some patients are getting the benefit, but I don’t know if it’s due to the drug or something else, because it’s not controlled,” he said.
“There’s something in it worth exploring, and that’s what a number of scientists are trying to do.”
Cannabis around the world
Cannabis around the world
Farmers destroy cannabis plantations under Moroccan police supervision in the northern Moroccan Larache region, pictured here in 2006
Growing business: Cannabis on sale at River Rock Wellness
Oaksterdam in Oakland, California, is the world's only university dedicated to the study and cultivation of cannabis
Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images
A cannabis smoker marks the start of the new law by the Space Needle in Seattle
Cannabis growing wild in China, where it has been used to treat conditions such as gout and malaria
Uruguay has voted to make the country the first to legalize marijuana
A groundswell of support from the public led to full legalisation in Colorado
A man smokes licenced medicinal marijuana prior to participating in the annual Hemp Parade, or 'Hanfparade', in support of the legalization of marijuana in Germany on August 7, 2010 in Berlin, Germany. The consumption of cannabis in Germany is legal, though all other aspects, including growing, importing or selling it, are not. However, since the introduction of a new law in 2009, the sale and possession of marijuana for licenced medicinal use is legal.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
The UK latest figures show 2.3 million people used cannabis in the last year
Tourists visiting Amsterdam will not be banned from using the city’s famous cannabis cafes
These 25 cannabis plants, seized in Merseyside police, could have generated a turnover of £40,000 a year
12/13 San Francisco
April 20, 2012: People smoke marijuana joints at 4:20 p.m. as thousands of marijuana advocates gathered at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, California. The event was held on April 20, a date corresponding with a numerical 4/20 code widely known within the cannabis subculture as a symbol for all things marijuana.
A cannabis users' association will pay the town of Rasquera more than €600,000 a year for the lease of the land
Peter McCormick, a cellular neuroscience and biology researcher at the University of Surrey, said Deryn’s case was “very heartening” and “validates that we need more research into what is going on”.
“There are such stories, not his but others, where benefits have been seen. There are others where it hasn’t worked, so the bottom line is we need more research to understand what’s in play here.”
Oxford University recently announced a new £10m research programme into the medical use of marijuana. Scientists will explore the potential benefits of cannabis compounds in an attempt to create new treatments for conditions including pain, cancer and inflammatory diseases.
Zameel Cader, associate professor in clinical neurosciences, said the medical use of marijuana was an “area of huge untapped potential” – but the Home Office has said there are no plans to make the “harmful drug” legal.
Currently there is one licenced cannabis-based medicine in Britain, designed to reduce muscle spasms in people with multiple sclerosis (MS).
The mouth spray, called Sativex, contains two chemical extracts taken from the cannabis plant.
It was licenced for use in the UK in 2010, but is not usually available on the NHS in England as it is deemed too expensive. It is, however, available to MS patients in Wales.
A clinical trial into Sativex last month showed improvement in patients with a certain form of brain cancer when combined with another drug.
“It is a positive result, we’ll have to wait for bigger trials to be carried out, but it does suggest that at least for brain tumours, there is some promise of benefit to treating people with a cannabis extract, in this case Sativex,” said Dr Smith.Reuse content