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Can Cannflavins Treat Brain Cancer? Study Shows Molecules Have the Potential to Attack Tumour Cells

This article was originally published on March 2, 2023 by The College of Biological Science at the University of Guelph:

By Tiana Gluscevic

When Dr. Jasmin Lalonde’s team set out to study the effects of certain cannabis molecules called “flavonoids” on brain function, they made a rather unexpected discovery: the molecules may have potential to treat brain cancer.

Lalonde, a professor of neuroscience in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, and PhD candidate Jennifer Holborn recently published their findings in the journal Phytomedicine Plus.

Flavonoids are a well-studied group of molecules found in many plants that are known to reduce pain and inflammation in the body, explains Lalonde. He and Holborn set out to study two particular flavonoids found only in cannabis plants: cannflavin A and cannflavin B.

“Previous research has found cannflavins can have an anti-inflammatory effect, but the full extent of their biological activity remains to be understood,” says Lalonde. He and his group were particularly interested in the TrkB signalling pathway, which helps regulate growth and differentiation in brain cells.

“We had previously studied flavonoids from other plants and found that they increase TrkB signalling in neurons,” says Lalonde. He and his team hypothesized that cannflavin A and cannflavin B would produce the same result.

Using the cerebral cortex of mouse embryos to test the effect of cannflavin A and cannflavin B on TrkB signalling, the researchers realized very quickly that these molecules were having a rather unexpected effect: they were decreasing TrkB signalling.

The surprise finding has important health implications. Increased TrkB signalling often occurs in many cancers including glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer. Glioblastomas are able to make less invasive cancer cells around them more aggressive through this TrkB signalling.

The cannabis molecules block this same signalling pathway, suggesting that they could be used to attack brain cancer cells and limit their growth.

This exciting research is the first step in finding an effective way to target this signalling, with cannflavins, to stop the growth and metastasis of cancer cells.

“The next goal is to characterize these compounds as candidate therapeutic agents against glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), a common and aggressive form of adult brain cancer,” says Holborn.

Holborn says that the team has already started the next step in this research. “We are seeing promising potential with these compounds against glioblastoma cell survival and migration.”

Cannflavins are already of great interest to the biotechnology industry, as they are well-known to have anti-inflammatory effects. However, their activity against different cancer types (i.e. lung cancer, breast cancer, and pancreatic cancer) is fairly novel and provides a prospective avenue for cancer treatment.

“A start up company called Canurta has partnered with us and is investing in our research through a Mitacs Accelerate Fellowship,” says Holborn. “This will allow us to put more effort toward characterizing these molecules as novel anti-cancer agents.”

This ongoing research has exciting potential to expand the use of cannflavins beyond their anti-inflammatory properties, delivering a new way to use cannabis as a therapeutic agent for cancer.

Read the full study in the journal Phytomedicine Plus.

Read about other CBS Research Highlights.

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