Anorexia, early satiety, weight loss, and cachexia are problems experienced by cancer patients. Such patients are faced not only with the disfigurement associated with wasting but also with an inability to engage in the social interaction of meals.
Three controlled trials demonstrated that oral THC has variable effects on appetite stimulation and weight loss in patients with advanced malignancies and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection. One study evaluated whether dronabinol alone or with megestrol acetate was greater, less, or equal in efficacy to megestrol acetate alone for managing cancer-associated anorexia. In this randomized double-blind study of 469 adults with advanced cancer and weight loss, patients received 2.5 mg of oral THC twice daily, 800 mg of oral megestrol daily, or both. Appetite increased by 75% in the megestrol group and weight increased by 11%, compared with a 49% increase in appetite and a 3% increase in weight in the oral THC group after 8 to 11 weeks of treatment. These two differences were statistically significant. Furthermore, the combined therapy did not offer additional benefits beyond those provided by megestrol acetate alone. The authors concluded that dronabinol did little to promote appetite or weight gain in advanced cancer patients compared with megestrol acetate. However, a smaller placebo-controlled trial of dronabinol in cancer patients demonstrated improved and enhanced chemosensory perception in the cannabinoid group—food tasted better, appetite increased, and the proportion of calories consumed as protein was greater than in the placebo recipients.
In a randomized clinical trial, researchers compared the safety and effectiveness of orally administered Cannabis extract (2.5 mg THC and 1 mg cannabidinol), THC (2.5 mg), or placebo for the treatment of cancer-related anorexia-cachexia in 243 patients with advanced cancer who received treatment twice daily for 6 weeks. Results demonstrated that although these agents were well tolerated by these patients, no differences were observed in patient appetite or quality of life among the three groups at this dose level and duration of intervention.
Another clinical trial that involved 139 patients with HIV or AIDS and weight loss found that, compared with placebo, oral dronabinol was associated with a statistically significant increase in appetite after 4 to 6 weeks of treatment. Patients receiving dronabinol tended to have weight stabilization, whereas patients receiving placebo continued to lose weight.
In trials conducted in the 1980s that involved healthy control subjects, inhaling Cannabis led to an increase in caloric intake, mainly in the form of between-meal snacks, with increased intakes of fatty and sweet foods.[29,30] No published studies have explored the effect of inhaled Cannabis on appetite in cancer patients.
Pain management improves a patient's quality of life throughout all stages of cancer. Through the study of cannabinoid receptors, endocannabinoids, and synthetic agonists and antagonists, the mechanisms of cannabinoid-induced analgesia have been analyzed. The CB1 receptor is found in the central nervous system (CNS) and in peripheral nerve terminals. CB2 receptors are located mainly in peripheral tissue and are expressed in only low amounts in the CNS. Whereas only CB1 agonists exert analgesic activity in the CNS, both CB1 and CB2 agonists have analgesic activity in peripheral tissue.[32,33]