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Cannabis to treat cancer? Israeli scientist thinks so

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Tel Aviv University professor Daniel Peer, left, tries on a Montreal Canadiens cap that was given to him by CFTAU regional chair Michael Tenenbaum. (Howard Kay photo)

Cannabis and some of its derivative compounds have been shown to relieve the symptoms of cancer and some side effects of cancer treatment, but an Israeli scientist is researching the plant’s potential as an actual therapy.

Dan Peer, chair of the Tel Aviv Cancer Biology Research Centre, is studying the use of cannabinoids, the chemical constituents of the plant, in treating some kinds of cancer, and has had encouraging results in mice.

Canada, with its pioneering expertise in the medical potential of cannabis, is an ideal partner for research and development in the field, he suggested.

Peer, who’s also the managing director of Tel Aviv University’s Centre for Translational Medicine and was recently appointed vice-dean of life sciences, discussed his work with the Canadian Friends of the Tel Aviv University (CFTAU) on Feb. 26 at the Kandy Gallery in Montreal.

Peer is an expert in the use of nanotechnology in medicine. Specifically, he works on harnessing nanoparticles to deliver drugs directly into the body’s cells. He believes there is the potential to transform cancer therapy through the development of this technique.

Peer explained that when these “nanocarriers” are loaded with cannabinoids and target tumours, cancerous cells have been observed to shrink – at least in animal models.

The results are not entirely surprising, as most conventional chemotherapies are derived from plants, he pointed out.

The best-understood cannabis components are THC, CBD and CBN, but there are over 180 other compounds whose possible therapeutic properties have yet to be explored, he said.

His lab is experimenting with the big three, either singly or in combination, and both natural and synthetic. For example, mice with the very aggressive and deadly form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma called MCL lived almost twice as long (50 days versus 30 days) when treated with CBD and CBN nanoparticles, compared to traditional chemotherapy, he said.

A longer survival rate has also been observed in mice with glioblastoma, a difficult-to-treat brain cancer.

Peer is also studying the efficacy of cannabinoid-laced nanoparticles on alleviating other illnesses, such as inflammatory bowel disease, with interesting results. A CBD and THC combination has been discovered to work better than the standard steroid treatment, at least in mice trials, he said.

Peer foresees “endless opportunities” for the development of cannabis-based drugs. He believes the future of medicine, and specifically cancer treatment, is in tailoring therapies to the individual’s biological makeup. Today, the human genome can be mapped far more quickly and inexpensively than when the science was in its infancy in the 1990s, he said.

Israel is an advantageous place to explore the medical potential of cannabis, because of the “open-mindedness” of its doctors and hospitals, as well as the flexibility of its regulatory system, he added.

READ: FOR CANADA’S AND ISRAEL’S MARIJUANA INDUSTRIES, A BUDDING PARTNERSHIP

Peer is the head of the scientific advisory board of Toronto-based SciCann Therapeutics, an early stage pharmaceutical company that’s hoping to capitalize on “the thriving cannabis ecosystems of Canada and Israel,” according to its website. It’s concerned with the development of drugs for cancer, pain management, neurodegenerative diseases and inflammatory disorders.

The research and development is being done at various institutions in Israel, while the commercialization of new products will take place in Canada.

The company promotes a vision of what can be achieved, given that Canada is the “most advanced and fastest-growing cannabis market in the world,” and Israel is a “world leader in cannabis and cannabinoid R&D.”

In December, the Israeli parliament passed legislation permitting the export of medical cannabis products, which allows the country to become a player in the booming industry.

Peer’s work has also caught the attention of Quebec-based Cannara Biotech, which was a sponsor of the CFTAU event.

Founded by Zohar Krivorot, Cannara plans to open a plant in in Farnham, Que., which will be the largest cannabis cultivation and processing facility in the province.

The Jewish National Fund will direct proceeds from its Montreal Negev dinner in June towards the construction of a new nanoscience centre for precision medicine at TAU, JNF president Michael Goodman announced.