First some background: Malignant bone cancer refers to a number of diverse tumor types, including osteosarcoma, chondrosarcoma, fibrosarcoma, cordoma, and Erwig’s sarcoma. Although the physiological mechanisms leading to tumor formation and malignancy may differ, the main symptoms of most forms of bone cancer are severe pain and bone loss. Thus, in standard treatment regiments for bone cancer, opiates are used in addition to chemotherapy and radiotherapy to abate the pain. However, use of opiates for analgesia has several downsides: physical addiction, high abuse potential, and rapid tolerance to name a few. Additionally, two side effects of chronic opiate use lead to an exacerbation of bone cancer symptoms. The first is pain hypersensitization. When the body is exposed to constant levels of any drug that acts as a receptor agonist, it induces a protective response to maintain its original state. Therefore when exposed to chronic opiate medications, the body reduces expression of opioid receptors, leading to decreased pain inhibition and thus increased sensitivity to pain. The second is hypogonadism. Opiates act on what is known as the hypothalamic-pituitary axis, causing decreased levels of hormone release. One of these hormones is GnRH (gonadotropin releasing hormone). GnRH causes release of two hormones from the anterior pituitary: LH (luteinizing hormone) and FSH (follicle stimulating hormone). These two hormones are responsible for regulating the amount of testosterone in both males and females. Although testosterone is widely known for being the main sex hormone in males, it is also present in lesser amounts in females with a common protective function of maintaining bone density. Thus chronic use of opiate medications will lead to an increased level of bone loss.
The new information: Cannabinoids have been shown to be a more valid alternative for treating bone cancer-mediated pain. The experiment was carried out by inducing bone cancer in mice and performing both behavioral and radiologic image interpretation of symptoms. After confirming the development of cancer, the mice were shown to have experienced both spontaneous and touch-evoked behavioral signs of pain. By administrating cannabinoids to the mice, both the spontaneous and stimulated pain was inhibited. Additionally, a sustained treatment regimen of cannabinoids led to significant reductions in bone loss, manifesting as a decreased likelihood of cancer-induced bone fractures.
What this means: By showing the benefits of utilizing cannabinoids as an alternative analgesic for bone cancer patients, cannabis may be a healthier alternative than opiates in treating pain associated with the cancer. Chronic use of opiates can cause more harm than good, as they often exacerbate the symptoms of bone cancer via patient hypersensitivity to pain and decreased bone mineral density. Cannabinoids on the other hand not only provide a non-physically addictive alternative, but also have been shown to attenuate the bone loss seen in cancer patients.
Lozano, A., et al. “A Cannabinoid 2 Receptor Agonist Attenuates Bone Cancer-induced Pain and Bone Loss.” Life Sciences. 2010: (preprint)