UCSF Testing Medical Marijuana for Cancer Pain

By Jeff Sheehy

UCSF researchers are conducting a study to determine if it is safe and effective to use smoked marijuana in combination with opioid pain medications to treat cancer pain.

“With some cancer patients, pain persists despite using opioid painkillers. Marijuana relieves pain using a different mechanism than opioids and could augment the pain relief of opiate analgesics,” said study principal investigator, Donald Abrams, MD, UCSF professor of clinical medicine and chief of the hematology-oncology division at San Francisco General Hospital Medical Center (SFGHMC).

“The study will also evaluate whether using marijuana in addition to opioids alleviates side effects such as nausea, vomiting and loss of appetite caused by the opioid pain medications,” said Abrams.

Participants must be 18 or older, have a cancer diagnosis with at least a six-month expected survival and be taking opioids such as morphine, oxycontin or fentanyl for cancer pain. The study, which reimburses participants $600, requires spending nine days and nights in the inpatient clinical research center at SFGHMC. Treatment will consist of smoking a marijuana cigarette three times a day. Blood will be drawn to check levels of opioids and THC, the active ingredient in marijuana. Pain and nausea/vomiting will be measured.

“This is our first study looking at medical marijuana with cancer patients,” said Abrams. He is currently testing medical marijuana for relief of pain associated with peripheral neuropathy caused by HIV and/or anti-HIV medications. Abrams is also collaborating in a soon to begin study to determine if medical marijuana can relieve the delayed nausea and vomiting experienced by patients with breast cancer who are on chemotherapy.

Funding for the studies comes from the State of California-funded Center for Medical Cannabis Research. The marijuana cigarettes for the study are being supplied by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a part of the National Institutes of Health.

Persons interested in participating in the study should contact Hector Vizoso, RN, UCSF Community Consortium, at (415) 476-9554, extension 366.