Could cannabis be a future skin cancer treatment? Scientists say it has potential

Scientists are studying in the lab to see if cannabis could be a future treatment for skin cancer.
Scientists are studying in the lab to see if cannabis could be a future treatment for skin cancer. Copyright AP
Copyright AP
By Roselyne Min with AP, AuBC
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There were positive results in the laboratory but the researchers have not yet started animal trials, and it could take years before it’s approved for human trials.


Researchers are investigating whether a cannabis extract could someday be used to treat skin cancer.

Their recent study suggests there is potential in using a cannabinoid-derived extract to disrupt the growth of melanoma cancer cells.

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that is often treated with invasive medical procedures such as surgery or radiation therapy.

Researchers at Australia’s Charles Darwin University (CDU) and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) discovered a specific cannabis extract called cannabinoid PHEC-66 worked by effectively manipulating cancerous cells into killing themselves in the laboratory.

PHEC-66 was developed by an Australian pharmaceutical company MGC Pharmaceuticals, which sponsored part of the study.

They say the extract binds to receptor sites on particular melanoma cells, controlling the growth of cells at two pivotal phases and increasing the amount of damage to the cells.

"It works by forcing the cell to go through what we call a programmed cell death or apoptosis,” Dr Nazim Nassar, a pharmacist at Charles Darwin University, told the Australia Broadcasting Corporation.

“The damage to the melanoma cell prevents it from dividing into new cells, and instead begins a programmed cell death, also known as apoptosis,” Nassar added in a statement.

The researchers have not yet started animal trials, and it could take years before it’s approved for human trials.

"The subsequent stage involves animal studies or pre-clinical trials to validate and further explore the efficacy of cannabinoid PHEC-66 in treating melanoma and other cancers,” Nitin Mantri, biotechnologist at RMIT and lead author of the study, said in a statement.

For people living with cancer, like Leigh Raaschou, any alternative to surgery is a welcome option.

Since 1998, Raaschou has had four melanomas. The most recent was cut out by doctors last year.

He never protected himself from sunburn and says he has spent most of his life exposed to sunlight.

Melanomas on his head spread to the bone and he lost hearing and sight during radiation therapy. Doctors were forced to remove part of his skull.

“I would have had well over 100 skin cancers cut off in that time, probably closer to 200,” Raaschou said.

He says he wishes he’d known about the risk of skin cancer 10 years ago.

“Never wore a hat, never wore sunscreen. And this is the result”.

Animal and human testing needed

Mantri stressed the importance of testing the safety of the extract in cancer treatment over the long term.


For pre-clinical trials, researchers need to develop a targeted delivery system.

“Advanced delivery systems still need to be fully developed, underscoring the importance of ongoing efforts to ensure the proper and effective use of these agents at target sites,” Nassar said.

Researchers say this is just the start as they investigate how the research could help treat different types of cancers in future.

“This is a growing area of important research because we need to understand cannabis extracts as much as possible, especially their potential to function as anticancer agents,” Nassar said.

“If we know how they react to cancer cells, particularly in the cause of cell death, we can refine treatment techniques to be more specific, responsive and effective”.


According to Nassar, clinical uses of cannabis extracts currently include treatment for anxiety, cancer-related symptoms, epilepsy, and chronic pain.

Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world with about two out of three people in the country expected to be diagnosed with some form of skin cancer before the age of 70, according to cancer charity Cancer Council NSW.

In EU countries, melanoma accounted for four per cent of all new cancer diagnoses in 2020.

For more on this story, watch the video in the media player above.

Video editor • Roselyne Min

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