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Marijuana holds the title of a harmless drug. But this fresh research from University of California shows how it can accelerate growth of HPV cancers. By The Fresh Toast's Kate-Madonna Hindes, provided exclusively to Benzinga Cannabis.

Research says marijuana can speed up human papillomavirus-related cancer growth

Marijuana has long held the title of a harmless drug. But this fresh research from University of California shows how it can accelerate growth of HPV-related cancers

Marijuana and its connection to HPV-related cancers is enough to snatch its title of being a harmless drug. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

‘Tis is the age of marijuana, weed, hash, cannabis… or whatever else you want to call it. Never has there been such a vocal demand for the plant-based substance in India and the world. Used for recreation by many, marijuana is also recommended medically in many countries for its pain-relieving properties. After all, there are hardly any side-effects of marijuana right? Well, if you believe that from the bottom of your heart–then we’ve got some news you’ll be very interested in. Turns out, marijuana can speed up the growth of human papillomavirus -related head and neck cancer.

Researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine claim that THC accelerates cancer growth in patients with HPV-positive head and neck squamous cell carcinoma.

Blame the tetrahydrocannabinol
You see, THC is one of the 113 cannabinoids that can be found in marijuana. It also happens to be the main psychoactive compound in the plant and is the reason why we tend to feel euphoria or a high after smoking up. But what’s it connection to cancer?

Well, the research–which was published in American Association for Cancer Research’s journal Clinical Cancer Research –states that when THC enters the bloodstream it activates a pathway which controls a process of programmed cell death, called apoptosis. When activated, this pathway–called p38 MAPK– prevents apoptosis which then allows cancer cells to grow unbound.

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Apoptosis is crucial for the body as it kills pre-cancerous and infected cells in the body–thus protecting you and your immune system.

So is marijuana really a harmless drug?
While we can have this debate over and over again–the American researchers are calling for more research to bust public opinion about the lack of health hazards of marijuana.

This is crucial, also because this isn’t the first study to point fingers at cannabis and THC for acceleration of cancer growth. In fact, many studies have connected the dots between daily marijuana exposure and an increased incidence of human papillomavirus-related throat cancer. However, the “how” of the whole mattera mechanism was unknown.

“We now have convincing scientific evidence that daily marijuana use can drive tumor growth in HPV-related head and neck cancer,” said Joseph A. Califano III, MD, senior author and professor and vice chief of the Division of Otolaryngology in the Department of Surgery at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “Marijuana and other cannabis products are often considered benign, but it is important to note that all drugs that have benefits can also have drawbacks. This is a cautionary tale.”

Meghna Kriplani

Waging a war against diets one cookie at a time, Meghna is a content creator and editor focusing on women’s issues, wellness, and lifestyle.

Marijuana And HPV: Friend Or Foe?

Often called the common cold of the sexual world, the Centers for Disease Control states that HPV has infected over 79 million individuals worldwide. Both prevalent and highly contagious, HPV tends to thrive on porous skin located in the throat, anal cavity, cervix and tongue, making it extremely difficult to test and eradicate around the world.

Risk factors of HPV are a compromised immune system, smoking and poor diet and sleep. Thought to cause over 70% of cervical cancers, the World Health Organization states that HPV has more than 100 types and has one of the best known defenses: vaccination.

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For decades, researchers believed that marijuana played a role in HPV-related cervical cancer. However, a 2010 study, published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine, found that marijuana did not cause cervical cancer.

Understanding HPV’s infectivity

While once thought to only be contracted through sexual conduct, studies in the last two decades have showcased that HPV can live on surfaces. One study, published in the British Medical Journal in 2002 found HPV DNA could live in a clinical environment, without skin-to-skin contact. A more recent and in-depth study, featured in Taylor & Francis Online, found that when comparing the bovine papillomavirus with the human papillomavirus, both showed a remarkable ability to retain a 50% infectivity at room temperature after 3 days.

Additionally, in 2014, Penn State further researched on earlier findings, finding that unless a special method of cleaning instruments (autoclaving) or bleach was present, HPV was persistent on surfaces and was able to be transmitted. While still cited as a “sexually-transmitted infection,” HPV appears to be anything but.

Craig Meyers, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Penn State College of Medicine explained, “Chemical disinfectants used in the hospitals and other healthcare settings have absolutely no effect on killing human papillomavirus… unless bleach or autoclaving is used in the hospital setting, human papillomavirus is not being killed and there is a potential spread of HPV through hospital acquired or instrument or tool infection.”

Photo by Joe Raedle/Staff/Getty Images

THC’s Role with HPV

A recent study published by Joseph A. Califano III, MD, found an interesting juxtaposition between HPV and THC. He shared in a report to UC San Diego Health that he felt since HPV-related head and neck cancers along with marijuana use were both on the rise, there might be a correlation between the two. His father, Joseph A. Califano Jr., is the former Secretary of State and well-known founder and chairman to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, who heads an organization speaking out against marijuana.
In the study, Califano III cited that THC turned on the p38 MAPK, (protein that respond to stress or other stimuli) and while the protein was signaled on, HPV-positive head and neck cancer lost apoptosis (a form of cell death.) Meaning, THC seemed to ignite the protein that allowed HPV to continue growing at an alarming rate. Citing the study as a, “cautionary tale,” Califano III is now heading a study to see if CBD has the same effect.

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Interestingly, an earlier study directly opposite of Caifano’s findings was published in 2016 by North-West University in Potchefstroom, South Africa.

Citing the same method of apoptosis, researchers found that CBD could be considered anticarcinogenic for cervical cancer. The data further illustrated that, “cannabidiol rather than Cannabis sativa crude extracts prevent cell growth and induced cell death in cervical cancer cell lines.” Could cannabis hurt head and neck cancers while CBD kills cancer cells in the cervix?
Kellie Lease Stecher, MD, a gynecologist in Edina, a suburb of Minneapolis, Minn. believes both studies highlight the importance of ongoing research. “While marijuana use is climbing due to legality, more studies must be done to look at the HPV’s DNA and how each strand is effected by CBD or marijuana,” Stecher explained. “Further studies should examine how HPV expression is altered by marijuana or its components in different tissues; as we don’t have enough data to determine if CBD or THC is helpful or harmful due to conflicting data.”

With an eye to the future and ever-climbing HPV-positive cancer rates, research can’t come soon enough.

Featured image by Getty Images

Original publication: 2020

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