On June 30, the University of Canberra (UC) announced plans to undertake a $1 million study into medicinal marijuana as a form of treatment for skin cancer. The two-year project will be run in collaboration with Cann Pharmaceutical, an international pharmaceutical company that will provide researchers not only with funding but also with access to medical-grade strains of cannabis.
What is melanoma?
Melanoma is typically (but not always) a skin cancer that begins in the melanocytes. These cells produce melatonin, so most melanoma tumors are brown or black, though they can occur in other colors such as white, tan and pink. Melanoma typically develops on the chest, back, legs, neck or face, though it can form on other parts of the body, too. If left unchecked, melanoma can spread to vital organs, which makes treatment very difficult.
According to the Melanoma Research Foundation, about 9 in 10 melanoma cases are caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays. Other variables such as genetics, environmental factors and family history can also be contributing factors.
The current relationship between cancer and medical marijuana
Many pieces of research have explored the efficacy of cannabis as a treatment for the symptoms associated with cancer and found very positive results. For example, a comprehensive review of relevant literature published in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians determined that cannabis was effective at reducing nausea and vomiting, providing pain relief, and treating weight loss and poor appetite – all symptoms that are commonly caused by cancer.
However, while cannabis has proven to be effective at alleviating these symptoms, the potential for marijuana as a true anticancer agent remains an issue of ongoing debate in the scientific world (despite some wild claims by cannabis proponents that THC can cure cancer altogether). An academic review published in Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry reported that current research suggests THC and other cannabinoid agonists do exert anticancer properties in preclinical cancer models. In addition, there’s a growing amount of evidence that indicates cannabinoids may also amplify the anticancer activity of temozolomide and anaplastic lymphoma kinase inhibitors in animal models of glioma (tumors that develop on the supportive tissue of the brain).
Few researchers have delved into cannabis as a treatment for skin cancer in particular. One study published in the British Journal of Pharmacology found that cannabidiol and cannabigerol could potentially have applications in managing skin diseases – including, possibly, skin cancer. While the findings are valuable in their own right and could act as a foundation for future research, some media outlets took the results to mean that THC oil is a melanoma-healing tonic – a conclusion that is obviously far from accurate.
So, the UC study is venturing where few have gone. But not only is the project unique in this regard, it also has special relevance to New Zealand.
Why is this medical marijuana research of particular importance to New Zealand?
The UC study will resonate with many Kiwis due to the extraordinarily high prevalence of skin cancer in Aotearoa. Indeed, a recent study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology found that New Zealand now has the highest per capita rate of melanoma in the world, with about 50 cases per 100,000 people. This represents an increase of almost 200 per cent in the past 30 years. As a result, around 300 Kiwis die of melanoma every single year, according to figures collated by Melanoma New Zealand. What’s worse, these figures are expected to rise in the near future.
What’s responsible for this trend? Well, as Tony Reeder, associate professor at University of Otago explained, it’s due to a combination of high UV exposure and a mostly European population that is poorly adapted to such conditions.
“We have a summer when the Earth is closest to the sun … it means you can be quite heavily exposed even when the weather is quite cool,” commented Mr Reeder, as quoted by Stuff.
However, it’s not just the climate that is to blame. Speaking with The Guardian, Melanoma New Zealand CEO Linda Flay noted that a lack of education in the New Zealand school system is contributing to the country’s skin cancer statistics. In fact, research published in Preventive Medicine Reports found that only 50 per cent of New Zealand schools have some sort of sun protection policy in place.
As leader of the UC study Sudha Rao explained, the prevalence of melanoma in Australasia makes the research even more important.
“Australians have the highest rate of melanoma in the world, with estimates of more than 13,000 new cases to be diagnosed in 2016 alone,” said Ms Rao in a press release.
“When you consider that melanoma is the third most common cancer in Australia and New Zealand, and almost 1,800 people will die as a result of this cancer this year, we need to work harder at finding effective treatments.”
Looking ahead – Medical Cannabis in NZ
The UC study is set to get underway in 2017 and many will be eagerly awaiting the outcome of the research. Not only could the findings be important from an academic point of view, it also serves as further evidence of Australasia’s changing attitude toward medical marijuana. Adopting a progressive stance on medicinal cannabis here in New Zealand could be critical in developing a better understanding of melanoma, one of the country’s most prolific killers.