Many cancer patients already benefit from taking a drug with an active ingredient that is a synthetic version of THC, the primary psychotropic chemical in marijuana. Marinol won U.S. regulatory approval back in 1985 for alleviating nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy used to treat cancer.

Results from a recent study suggest that marijuana-based drugs might be effective at more than just helping with side effects of chemotherapy. Marijuana could actually help fight cancer. Is treating cancer the next great opportunity for marijuana stocks? 

Marijuana buds on prescription pad

Image source: Getty Images.

Latest findings

A team led by Dr. Wai Liu at St George's, University of London, medical school recently published findings from a study exploring cannabinoids in treating leukemia. The study found that cannabinoids appear to be effective in killing leukemia cells -- and especially so when combined with chemotherapy. 

Dr. Liu and his team conducted multiple experiments using different combinations of cannabinoids in fighting leukemia cancer cell in the laboratory. In addition, the team performed tests to see if different sequences of treatment made a difference.

This research found that giving an initial treatment of chemotherapy followed by treatment with cannabinoids significantly improved overall results in killing the blood cancer cells compared to chemotherapy alone. The major implication of this study is that cannabinoids could hold tremendous potential as part of a cancer treatment regimen.

It's important to note that this was only a laboratory test. The research performed by the St. George's team didn't involve humans. However, the results were promising and prompted the scientists involved in the study to call for additional confirmatory clinical trials. 

Other studies 

The St. George's study wasn't the first one in 2017 to show great promise for cannabinoids in treating cancer. Earlier this year, GW Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:GWPH) announced positive results from a phase 2 study of a cannabinoid therapy in treating recurrent glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), a serious form of brain cancer.

GW Pharmaceuticals marijuana growing facility

Image source: GW Pharmaceuticals.

At least one other clinical study exploring cannabinoids in battle cancer is also underway. Santosh Kesari at the University of California, San Diego, is leading a phase 1 clinical trial in collaboration with e-Therapeutics PLC evaluating dexanabinol (a synthetic cannabinoid derivative) in treating brain cancer. 

There aren't many clinical studies underway in the U.S. for cannabinoids in treating cancer, however, due in part to federal regulations that make such studies difficult to undertake. For now, testing is more likely to be conducted in other countries.

Potential impact on marijuana stocks

Dr. Liu made sure to point out that the cannabinoids used in his team's study were highly concentrated and purified extracts. He said that "smoking marijuana will not have a similar effect." 

GW Pharmaceuticals plans to move forward with a study of its cannabinoid combo in treating GBM that could eventually lead to filing for approval. GW might also be interested in the St. George's study results, as could other drugmakers.

Insys Therapeutics (NASDAQ:INSY) would be one that I would think could be high on the list. Insys has already won approval for Syndros, which, like Marinol, contains THC. Insys is also testing its own cannabidiol (CBD) product in treating Dravet syndrome and Lennox–Gastaut syndrome, the two indications for which GW is pursuing approval for Epidiolex. 

At this point, it's way too early for either of these two studies for which results have been announced in 2017 to make much of a difference on marijuana stocks. For now, other factors are more likely to drive marijuana stocks higher. It seems quite possible, however, that cancer treatment could be the next great opportunity for at least one marijuana stock -- GW Pharmaceuticals.