• Cannabinoids, the active components of Cannabis sativa and their derivatives, act in the organism by mimicking endogenous substances, the endocannabinoids, that activate specific cannabinoid receptors. Cannabinoids exert palliative effects in patients with cancer and inhibit tumour growth in laboratory animals.
• The best-established palliative effect of cannabinoids in cancer patients is the inhibition of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. Today, capsules of ∆9-tetrahydrocannabinol (dronabinol (Marinol)) and its synthetic analogue nabilone(Cesamet) are approved for this purpose.
• Other potential palliative effects of cannabinoids in cancer patients — supported by Phase III clinical trials — include appetite stimulation and pain inhibition. In relation to the former, dronabinol is now prescribed for anorexia associated with weight loss in patients with AIDS.
• Cannabinoids inhibit tumour growth in laboratory animals. They do so by modulating key cell-signalling pathways, thereby inducing direct growth arrest and death of tumour cells, as well as by inhibiting tumour angiogenesis and metastasis.
• Cannabinoids are selective antitumour compounds, as they can kill tumour cells without affecting their non-transformed counterparts. It is probable that cannabinoid receptors regulate cell-survival and cell-death pathways differently in tumour and non-tumour cells.
• Cannabinoids have favourable drug-safety profiles and do not produce the generalized toxic effects of conventional chemotherapies. The use of cannabinoids in medicine, however, is limited by their psychoactive effects, and so cannabinoid-based therapies that are devoid of unwanted side effects are being designed.
• Further basic and preclinical research on cannabinoid anticancer properties is required. It would be desirable that clinical trials could accompany these laboratory studies to allow us to use these compounds in the treatment of cancer.