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Cannabis ingredient improves appetite, taste for cancer patients

By Kathleen Blanchard     Feb 23, 2011 in Health
A new study shows THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, improved appetite and sense of taste for cancer patients who also reported sleeping better from cannabinoid therapy.
THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, could help cancer patients by improving nutritional status that declines from altered sense of taste and smell. Researchers say, based on the findings, physicians should consider the benefits of prescribing drugs containing the marijuana ingredient.
In a small study, published today in the Annals of Oncology that included 21 patients, from May 2006 to December 2008 who were in advanced stages of cancer and eating less as a result of active chemotherapy or cancer treatment in the past. Excluded were patients with brain cancer. All were randomized to receive either delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or placebo capsules.
Dr Wendy Wismer (PhD), associate professor at the University of Alberta (Edmonton, Canada), who led the study explains, "Decreased appetite and chemosensory alterations can be caused by both cancer and its treatment; untreated tumours cause loss of appetite, and by itself, chemotherapy also causes loss of appetite. In any individual patient, some part of both of these effects is usually present."
She notes it is important to find ways to address eating problems experienced by cancer patients that can lead to involuntary weight loss, inability to tolerate treatment and general declines in health.
Of the 21 patients studied, 8 were assigned to placebo and 11 received oral THC capsules. The placebo group continued to experience worsening appetite or no change, while 64 percent of the cannabis group reported increased appetite, 73 percent said they had increased appreciation of food and 55 percent said the medication made food taste better. The group given medication also slept better compared to those given placebo.
Dr. Wismer said, "This is the first randomised controlled trial to show that THC makes food taste better and improves appetites for patients with advanced cancer, as well as helping them to sleep and to relax better. Our findings are important, as there is no accepted treatment for chemosensory alterations experienced by cancer patients. We are excited about the possibilities that THC could be used to improve patients' enjoyment of food."
She also points out the ability to enjoy food is important for quality of life, emphasizing that for years cancer patients have been advised to cope with sensory loss related to smell and taste that are side effects of chemotherapy. Many are told to eat bland, cold, odorless food to avoid nausea.
The study was unable to show if the medication resulted in more calories, but the researchers say that's not surprising. Just getting cancer patients to eat and enjoy food is important.
The researchers suggest larger Phase II trials conducted at any stage of cancer when changes in taste, smell and appetite begin to affect appetite in patients. In the meantime, Dr. Wismer says physicians should consider prescribing THC, the active ingredient in cannabis for cancer patients, based on the study findings. Long-term therapy with cannabinoids is also possible, but would be up to each patients physician.
Ann Oncol (2011): doi: 10.1093/annonc/mdq727
More about Cannabinoid therapy, Cannabis, Thc, Marijuana, Cancer