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Leukemia and Medical Marijuana

Medical Marijuana as Treatment for Leukemia? (Leukaemia)

Contrary to popular belief, Leukemia is actually a group of neoplastic diseases of your white blood cells. Acute and chronic myelogenous leukemia are just two types, with the former usually more aggressive (presenting with hemorrhage and organ infiltration) and the latter often asymptomatic.

Every year, 3000 new cases of Leukemia are diagnosed globally, making up almost 3% of new cancer cases yearly. If all types of leukemia are considered, there is approximately a 20% 5-year survival globally. In developed countries, 31% survive for 5 years or more, while only 15% in developing countries. Also note that acute leukemias are usually childhood disorders, with acute lymphocytic leukemia being the most common malignancy, affecting children as young as 2 years old.

Treatment for leukemia is always changing and evolving, with systemic chemotherapy most commonly used. But, chemotherapy in itself is not a definitive treatment. For instance, treatment of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) is only palliative. It’s not without side effects either. Although chemotherapy kills cancer cells, it can cause gastrointestinal effects such as nausea and vomiting, and even hair loss.

A new treatment for Leukaemia recently making headlines comes in the form of an illicit drug. Marijuana has been a constant topic for debate, with a number of states legalizing the substance because of its many medicinal uses. Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about the positive effects of Medical Marijuana on leukemia, at least for 7-year old Mykayla Comstock. Within days of the little girl’s diagnosis last July 2012, her mother quickly filed the necessary documents that would allow her daughter to take Cannabis oil capsules. Although doctors are not sure about this idea, there are 4 more patients between age 4 and 9 participating in the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program, and 47 more between 10 and 17.

In Mykayla’s case, her diagnosis warranted a bone marrow transplant because she was not responding well to treatment. But upon taking the Cannabis oil pills, Mykayla started getting better and eventually went in remission, with the transplant being unnecessary.

Health professionals are still hesitant about giving medical marijuana for leukemia patients, some claiming that it doesn’t kill cancer cells and even decreases immunity even more. Others are concerned about the long-term effects of marijuana on these patients, because of its addictive quality and potential to interfere with cognitive development in children.

The use of medical marijuana for Leukemia patients have been studied as early as the 70’s. A research by Tucker and Friedman (1977) showed the ability of cannabinoids (the active component of marijuana) to inhibit DNA synthesis of cancer cells in murine (mice) leukemia. A more recent study by Powles et al. (2005) showed the ability of tetrahydrocannabinol to induce cell death in leukemic cell lines. The 2006 study of Jia et al. further pushed the development of medical marijuana oil derived from Cannabis buds. It is important to note that the effects of the oil are obtained by ingestion and not by smoking the substance.

Whether the medical community is ready to accept the benefits of medical marijuana
, there’s no denying that those positive effects do exist. But with the vast number of new leukemia cases diagnosed each year, every possible treatment is worth a try.