First some background: According to the American Cancer Society, in 2009, approximately 22,620 cases of hepatic (liver) cancer were diagnosed, with an approximate 82% mortality rate. Although this is a relatively rare form of cancer, it can be caused by hepatitis or excessive alcohol consumption, and has one of the highest mortality rates. Hepatic cancer is one of the hardest cancers to diagnose, and according to the National Cancer Institute, approximately only 10-20% of liver tumors can be fully removed during surgery. If not removed, liver cancer it is usually deadly within three to six months. One of the molecular causes of cancer is known to be decreased apoptotic ability. Apoptosis refers to programmed cell death, in which a cell receives a specific signal, activating “suicidal” pathways that eventually terminate in the cell’s death. This process is used to control the proliferation of cells in our bodies, allowing us to keep a relatively constant numbers of each cell type. If a cell undergoes a mutation that leads to an inability to perform apoptosis, cell growth can no longer be controlled and a tumor is formed. If the cells within this tumor are capable of recruiting blood vessels and traveling to other parts of the body, they are referred to as malignant tumors, causing what is commonly known as cancer.
The new information: When cannabinoids were administered to human hepatocellular carcinoma (HHC) cells, it caused an up-regulation of a receptor known as DR5 (Death Receptor 5). This receptor allows binding of molecules known as TNFs (Tumor Necrosis Factors), and leads to the activation of an apoptotic pathway. When the DR5 receptors are up-regulated, there are more binding sites for TNFs, which leads to higher levels of cell death. Additionally, administration of the cannabinoid lead to a significant decrease in survival factors, which have the ability to halt the process of apoptosis. The cannabinoid in this study was co-administered with TRAIL (TNF-related apoptosis inducing ligand), leading to a significantly higher level of apoptosis than administration with TRAIL alone.
What this means: This illustrates a novel treatment for liver cancer; because it is one of the hardest carcinomas to remove surgically and its high mortality rate, liver cancer remains one of the deadliest forms. This study proved that administration of cannabinoids lead to an increased sensitivity of hepatic cancer cells to factors that lead to their death. Therefore, co-administration of cannabis with current cancer treatments can lead to an increase in their effectiveness.
Pellerito, O., et al. “The synthetic cannabinoid WIN sensitizes hepatocellular carcinoma cells to TRAIL-induced apoptosis by activating p8/CHOP/DR5 axis.” Molecular Pharmacology. (2010): preprint.