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USA: Researcher receives $3.2 million grant to study impact of cannabis on immunotherapy

A psychologist at UB (University at Buffalo) has been awarded a $3.2 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to examine the impact of cannabis use on patients undergoing immunotherapy, an increasingly advanced cancer treatment that bolsters the body's immune system in the fight against cancer.

Immunotherapy is administered to nearly 44% of cancer patients with various types of tumors, particularly involving immune checkpoint inhibitors (ICIs). Immune checkpoints are a natural component of the immune system, regulating the immune response to prevent the destruction of healthy cells.

Approximately 40% of cancer patients report using cannabis to manage symptoms during and after their treatments. However, there is a notable lack of rigorous research into the effectiveness of cannabis for this purpose, according to Rebecca Ashare, an associate professor of psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences, and the principal investigator of the grant.

"There are almost no long-term studies assessing its potential benefits and risks for individuals undergoing immunotherapy for cancer, despite cancer and its treatments being qualifying conditions in most of the 37 states and Washington, D.C., where adult use or medical cannabis is legalized," Ashare explains. "While there are reports of benefits such as pain relief, mood improvement, and alleviating sleep problems, there is also evidence of physical, cognitive, and mental harms, including cannabis use disorder."

Immune checkpoint inhibitors are commonly used in cancer immunotherapy, known for having fewer side effects compared to chemotherapy and allowing patients to remain on the treatment for a longer duration. However, cannabis possesses anti-inflammatory properties that can suppress immune function.

"This is generally beneficial, except when you want the immune system to be active in order to combat cancer, so there are concerns that cannabis might reduce the effectiveness of immunotherapy," Ashare notes. "The need for evidence is clear, and this project marks an important initial step in that process, as both immunotherapy and cannabis use are increasingly accepted therapeutic options in oncology by many patients and physicians."

The research into this field is receiving investment from the NCI (National Cancer Institute) and involves collaboration with multiple partners.

Thomas Jefferson University and Oregon Health and Science University will be working with UB to recruit participants for a 12-month observational study conducted at three sites. This study aims to advance our understanding of the benefits and risks associated with cannabis use over time among cancer patients receiving immunotherapy.

Each site will recruit 450 participants who are undergoing cancer treatment with ICI immunotherapy. Half of the participants will be cannabis users, and the other half will be non-users. Roberto Pili, the associate dean for cancer research and integrative oncology in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, will lead the oncology research for UB and the Great Lakes Cancer Care Collaborative.

Participants will not be randomly assigned to use cannabis products, and each will use their chosen products. The research team will assess the benefits and risks through medical records, patient outcomes, and blood samples at six different time points over a one-year period.

This project is part of an NCI-funded consortium that will encompass the largest group of cancer patients in the country to examine cannabis use in cancer patients.

Another objective of the grant is to explore the influence of neighborhood disadvantage on outcomes related to cannabis use and ICI immunotherapy.

"We want to investigate if access to cannabis can reduce health disparities," says Ashare.

Ashare has been researching cannabis use in cancer patients for a few years, initially exploring whether cannabis use could reduce opioid usage while maintaining effective pain management.

During her research, it became apparent that there was significant focus on the potential benefits of cannabis use, but little attention was given to potential side effects or adverse effects.

She believes that now is the time to address this knowledge gap.

"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 lasting impact on the science of cancer symptom management and ultimately improve patient care and safety."

Originally published here:

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