THC in marijuana may block the spread of forms of cancer causing herpes viruses

The compound in marijuana that produces a high, delta-9 tetrahydrocannbinol or THC, may block the spread of several forms of cancer causing herpes viruses, University of South Florida College of Medicine scientists report.

The findings, published Sept. 15 in the online journal BMC Medicine, could lead to the creation of antiviral drugs based on nonpsychoactive derivatives of THC.

The gamma herpes viruses include Kaposi's Sarcoma Associated Herpes virus, which is associated with an increased risk of cancer that is particularly prevalent in AIDS sufferers. Another is Epstein-Barr virus, which predisposes infected individuals to cancers such as Burkitt's lymphoma and Hodgkin's disease.

Once a person is infected, these viruses can remain dormant for long periods within white blood cells before they burst out and begin replicating. This reactivation of the virus boosts the number of cells infected thereby increasing the chances that the cells will become cancerous.

The USF team, led by virologist Peter Medveczky, MD, found that this sudden reactivation was prevented if infected cells were grown in the presence of THC. While cells infected with a mouse gamma herpes virus normally died when the virus was reactivated, these same cells survived when cultured in the laboratory along with the cannabinoid compound – further evidence that THC prevents viral reactivation.

Furthermore, the researchers showed that THC acts specifically on gamma herpes viruses. The chemical had no effect on another related virus, herpes simplex-1, which causes cold sores and genital herpes.

Small concentrations of THC were more potent and selective against gamma herpes viruses than the commonly used antiviral drugs acyclovir, gancicyclovir and foscamet, said Dr. Medveczky, a professor in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology.

The USF researchers suggest that THC selectively inhibits the spread of gamma herpes viruses by targeting a gene these viruses all share called ORF50.

Dr. Medveczky emphasized that more studies are needed. "We have not evaluated the effect of THC in an animal model yet so we do not recommend people start using pot to prevent or treat cancers."

In fact, Dr. Meveczky said, THC has also been shown to suppress the immune system so smoking marijuana could "do more harm than good" to patients whose immune systems are often already weakened.

More Medical Marijuana Info

The medical use of marijuana enjoys wide public support. More than 70% of respondents to recent surveys agree that marijuana should be available medically. Sources: Pew Research Center for the People & the Press conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates. Feb. 14-19, 2001 and The Gallup Poll. March 19-21, 1999.

Marijuana is safe. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Administrative Law Judge, Francis L. Young stated in his 1988 ruling, “Marijuana, in its natural form, is one of the safest therapeutically active substances known. [The] provisions of the [Controlled Substances] Act permit and require the transfer of marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II. It would be unreasonable, arbitrary and capricious for the DEA to continue to stand between those sufferers and the benefits of this substance.” Source: U.S. Department of Justice, Drug Enforcement Administration. In the Matter of Marijuana Rescheduling Petition. (September 6, 1988) Docket #86-22. p. 57.

Marijuana can be used to treat a variety of conditions. Approved by approved voter initiative in 1998, the Oregon Medical Marijuana Act allows for the use of marijuana to treat cancer, glaucoma, AIDS/HIV, cachexia, severe pain, severe nausea, seizures (epilepsy), and persistent muscle spasms (Multiple Sclerosis). Currently, more than 300 Oregon physicians participate in this program. A blue ribbon panel of physicians, nurses, and patients appointed to review new indications added agitation from Alzheimer’s Disease to this list in July 2000. Source: Oregon Department of Human Services, Medical Marijuana Program.

Smoked marijuana is effective. Evaluation of controlled studies conducted in six different U.S. states indicates that smoked marijuana is 70-100% effective in controlling the nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy and substantially outperformed the synthetic THC capsule (Marinol®) and other commonly prescribed antiemetics. Source: Musty, Richard E. and Rita Rossi. “Effects of Smoked Cannabis and Oral D9 –Tetrahydrocannabinol on Nausea and Emesis after Cancer Chemotherapy: A Review of State Clinical Trials.” Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics (2001): Vol. 1, p. 29.

Marijuana is not a “gateway” drug. According to the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine, “There is no evidence that marijuana serves as a stepping stone [to other drugs of abuse] on the basis of its particular physiological effect…It does not appear to be a gateway drug to the extent that it is the cause or even that it is the most significant predictor of serious drug abuse.” Source: Joy, Janet E., Stanley J. Watson, Jr., and John A. Benson, Jr. Marijuana and Medicine: Assessing the Science Base for the Division of Neuroscience and Behavioral Research, Institute of Medicine. (Washington DC: National Academy Press, 1999), Chapter 3, pp. 98-100.

Medical groups support marijuana. Numerous prestigious medical organizations support access to medical marijuana. These include American Academy of Family Physicians, American Preventive Medical Association, American Public Health Association, American Society of Addiction Medicine, Lymphoma Foundation of America, National Association of People with AIDS, National Women’s Health Network, and the New England Journal of Medicine. Source: Patients out of Time.

Marijuana should be made available to sick people. As Tennessee State Senator Steve Cohen (D-Memphis) put it, “If people need pain relief, then they ought to have anything that God has provided on this earth to help.” Source: Editorial, “Testing Medical Marijuana Urged,” Chattanooga (Tennessee) Times & Free Press, April 12, 2001.

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The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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