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A new study confirms that cannabinoids, which are a class of active chemicals in cannabis, can successfully kill leukemia cells. They also find that the combination of chemicals and the order in which they are given is important. The findings will, no doubt, open the door to more effective treatments.

Cannabinoids, also known as phytocannabinoids, act as cannabinoid receptors in the brain. The most well known of these chemicals, and one of the most psychoactive, is tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

To date, there have been more than 100 cannabinoids identified, all with different properties and chemical profiles.

And, over recent years, the potential anti-cancer effects of cannabinoids have come into focus.

Laboratory and animal studies have demonstrated that certain cannabinoids inhibit tumor growthby promoting cell death, reducing cell growth, and blocking the development of blood vessels that supply the tumor.

For instance, cannabinoid delta-9-THC can damage or kill liver cancer cells. Similarly, cannabidiol is effective against estrogen receptor positive and estrogen receptor negative breast cancer cells, without damaging healthy tissue.

Cannabinoids and leukemia

A number of cannabinoids have also been shown to successfully fight leukemia cells. Leukemia is a cancer of bone marrow and other blood-forming organs.

Earlier research found that some of these chemicals, when used in combination, become even more potent killers of cancerous cells.

A new study, published recently in the International Journal of Oncology, explored these combinations in more depth. They also looked at the potential use of cannabinoids in conjunction with the existing chemotherapy drugs cytarabine and vincristine.

The researchers were led by Dr. Wai Liu at St George’s, University of London in the United Kingdom. Studying cancer cells in the laboratory, the team tested various combinations of cannabinoids and chemotherapy drugs to find the most effective groupings. They also tried to understand whether or not the order that the chemicals were given in would make a difference to success rates.

They found that cannabidiol and THC, when used alone, killed leukemia cells. However, when used in conjunction, their potency was significantly improved; the whole is more than the sum of the parts.

They also showed that an initial dose of chemotherapy followed by cannabinoids improved overall outcomes against the leukemia cells. Combining chemotherapy with cannabinoids provided better results than giving chemotherapy alone, or the combination of cannabidiol and THC. However, this increased potency was only seen if the cannabinoids were given after the chemotherapy, and not the other way around.