How cannabis use affects patients undergoing immunotherapy is to be the focus of a new study led by a University at Buffalo psychologist.
Immunotherapy is a treatment that assists the body’s immune system to fight cancer instead of killing cancer cells; as is the case in chemotherapy and radiotherapy. In addition to generally fewer side-effects, one the advantages of immunotherapy is patients may be able continue cancer treatment for longer than chemo and/or radiotherapy – and immunotherapy may follow those initial treatments.
The most prominent form of immunotherapy involves immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICIs), which control the immune response to avoid destruction of healthy cells.
According to University at Buffalo (UB), up to 40% of cancer patients report using cannabis for symptom management during and after their treatments. And while there has been significant research to date on the use of cannabis in conjunction with chemotherapy and radiotherapy, the same can’t be said for immunotherapy.
One of the concerns is some cannabinoids have anti-inflammatory properties that can suppress immune function and therefore could potentially reduce the efficacy of immunotherapy.
“There are virtually no long-term studies evaluating its potential benefits and harms for persons treated with immunotherapy for cancer, despite cancer and its treatments being qualifying conditions in most of the 37 states and Washington, D.C., that have legalized adult use or medical cannabis,” says Rebecca Ashare, associate professor of psychology in the UB College of Arts and Sciences.
This will soon change thanks to a $3.2 million grant from the National Cancer Institute awarded to Ass. Prof. Ashare to investigate. As well as UB, the study will involve Thomas Jefferson University and Oregon Health and Science University.
Each site will recruit 450 participants being treated for cancer with ICI immunotherapy – half of whom will be cannabis users and the other half non-users. The research team will assess benefits and harms using medical records, patient outcomes and blood samples at six different times over a 12-month period.
Given the increasing use of immunotherapy to extend and improve the lives of cancer patients, this research is very important.
“We have a strong multidisciplinary team with expertise in cancer symptom management, medical cannabis, health equity, oncology, immunology, and substance misuse,” says Ashare. “Overall this research will have a sustained impact on the science of cancer symptom management and ultimately improve patient care and safety.”