What do we know about the benefits of CBD in cancer management?

By: dsm-firmenich Pharma Solutions Editors

  • CBD (cannabidiol) is fast emerging as a promising ingredient in the pharmaceutical industry, where it may have an important therapeutic role across many health areas, including cancer.
  • This World Cancer Day (4th February) we’re highlighting what we know about CBD and cancer, including the potential benefits of the molecule in anti-cancer therapy and management for the side effects of cancer or its treatment.
  • Read on to discover what we know so far, and how dsm-firmenich is helping pharmaceutical customers explore the potential of CBD in early-stage drug development to unlock value-added solutions that will support patient health globally.

Let’s talk about CBD

The cannabis plant contains hundred of compounds, some of which are cannabinoids. CBD (cannabidiol) is the second most prevalent cannabinoid – after tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – and is usually extracted from hemp, a strain of the Cannabis sativa plant that contains a high percentage of CBD.1 The medical community has been aware of CBD for many years now, however, it was not until the discovery of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in humans in the late 1980s that its potential as a therapeutic ingredient was explored. The ECS is a complex cell-signaling system found throughout the body that is thought to regulate a number of important physiological functions, like sleep, mood, cognition and pain perception.2,3 Unlike THC, CBD has no psychoactive ‘high’ effects, making it an attractive therapeutic option for multiple health areas, including cancer.  

CBD and cancer: What do we know so far?

Cancer is a complex disease, influenced by genetics, as well as environmental and lifestyle factors. As such, cancer remains difficult to treat and, despite improvements in medical care, patients with cancer still experience many unwanted and distressing symptoms. However, advances in cancer care are continuously made, with new treatment approaches being explored all the time. Take CBD for example. The use of cannabinoids, including CBD, for the treatment of cancer has been of interest to the scientific community for some time. It is thought that CBD may help cancer patients manage some of the symptoms of the disease, and side effects of treatment. At the same time, researchers in the field are looking into whether CBD could slow or stop cancer altogether. So, what do we know so far?

  1. A promising anti-cancer drug
    There are a number of pre-clinical in-vitro and in-vivo studies that suggest cannabinoids – including CBD and THC – have anti-cancer activity in a wide variety of cancer types, including a role in cancer cell death and blocking cancer cell growth. For example, the potential of CBD in breast cancer has been studied for many years, showing consistent and effective pro-apoptotic and anti-proliferative activity in many different breast cancer cells and mouse models.4 This is significant since breast cancer is the number one leading cause of new cancer cases and the second leading cause of cancer deaths of women in the US, and new advancements in the field are therefore always welcomed.5 Similar effects have been demonstrated in multiple other cancer types too, including glioma (the most common primary brain malignancy), pancreas, prostate, colorectal and lymphoma.6,7,8,9

    But that’s not the only anti-cancer activity CBD is hypothesized to have. As well as acting on cancer cells directly, it has been suggested that CBD affects the tumor environment too by stopping the development of blood cells that feed the cancer, preventing its ability to spread and reducing inflammation.10,11 Furthermore, despite its activity against cancer cells, CBD – alone or together with THC – appears to have a milder effect (or no effect at all) on normal cells in the same tissues or organ as the cancer itself, making it an attractive anti-cancer therapeutic.12,13,14

  2. Managing the symptoms of cancer therapy
    Cancer and cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation, can produce a number of side effects, including nausea and vomiting, loss of appetite and pain. Although there is a wide range of medications available to manage the symptoms experienced by individuals with cancer, the control of some side effects remains an ongoing challenge and significant burden for many patients.

    While there are no studies to date that have confirmed CBD eases the side effects of cancer or cancer therapy, the molecule is understood to have some potential in modulating the most common and debilitating symptoms15 Although largely based on THC, there are also already some cannabinoid-based drugs on the market prescribed to help relieve symptoms caused by chemotherapy. Nabilone for example – also known as Cesamet – is FDA-approved and licensed for treating severe sickness and nausea from chemotherapy, if other anti-sickness drugs are unable to control it. Whereas Nabiximols – also marketed as Sativex – is a THC and CBD spray which is showing promise in treating cancer pain and subject to ongoing research.16,17 So, despite the fact that more scientific research is needed to confirm the benefits of CBD on cancer-related symptoms, evidence to date looks promising.

Unlock the potential of CBD with dsm-firmenich

Interest is building rapidly in the CBD space, and increasing attention is being given to its potential benefits in cancer patients. There is solid evidence supporting the idea that cannabinoids, like CBD, demonstrated anti-cancer activity in cultured cancer cell lines and animal models.4 In addition, CBD is thought to have potential as a complementary treatment of cancer, where it may help to relieve common cancer-related or cancer-therapy symptoms. However, there is not enough evidence to fully support the use of CBD in cancer just yet. In order to progress research in this field further and advance the development of CBD as a cancer treatment, there is an urgent need for more large-scale and well-designed clinical trials in humans to determine the role and efficacy of CBD in a variety of cancer types.

To help customers realize the full potential of CBD – and inspire the creation of bespoke, purpose-led drug products – dsm-firmenich has created a platform that facilitates early-stage drug development and novel scientific discoveries in the rapidly evolving CBD space. Be among the first to realize the possibilities of CBD in cancer therapy. Learn more about our CBD offering and how it can help you benefit global patient health.

Published on

04 February 2022


  • Pharma Solutions
  • R&D
  • Article
  • New Science
  • Cannabinoids


5 min read

Sign up for our newsletter

Stay up-to-date on the latest science, events and market trends

Download our Pharma Partner Brochure


  1. Corroon & Phillips. A cross-sectional study of cannabidiol users. Cannabis Cannabinoid Res., 2018, 3, 152-161.
  2. Zou & Kumar. Cannabinoid receptors and the endocannabinoid system: signaling and function in the central nervous system. Intl J Mol Sci., 2018, 19, 833.
  3. Navarrete et al. Endocannabinoid system components as potential biomarkers in psychiatry. Front. Psychiatry, 2020.
  4. Seltzer et al. Cannabidiol (CBD) as a promising anti-cancer drug. Cancers, 2020, 12, 3203.
  5. Kim. American Cancer Society; Springer Science and Business Media LLC: Cham, Switzerland, 2019; pp. 1–2.
  6. Bifulco et al. Cannabinoids and cancer: Pros and cons of an antitumour strategy. Br. J. Pharmacol., 2006, 148, 123–135.
  7. Bifulco et al. Endocannabinoids in endocrine and related tumours. Endocr. Relat. Cancer, 2008, 15, 391–408.
  8. Carchman et al. The inhibition of DNA synthesis by cannabinoids. Cancer Res., 1976, 36, 95–100.
  9. Munson et al. Antineoplastic activity of cannabinoids. J. Natl. Cancer Inst., 1975, 55, 597–602.
  10. Ramer & Hinz. Cannabinoids as anticancer drugs. Cannabinoid Pharmacol., 2017, 80, 397–436.
  11. Piomelli. The molecular logic of endocannabinoid signalling. Nat. Rev. Neurosci., 2003, 4, 873–884.
  12. Ivanov et al. Inhibition of ATM kinase upregulates levels of cell death induced by cannabidiol and γ-irradiation in human glioblastoma cells. Oncotarget, 2019, 10, 825-846.
  13. Jeong et al. Cannabidiol-induced apoptosis is mediated by activation of Noxa in human colorectal cancer cells. Cancer Lett, 2019, 447, 12-23.
  14. Nabissi et al. Triggering of the TRPV2 channel by cannabidiol sensitizes glioblastoma cells to cytotoxic chemotherapeutic agents. Carcinogenesis, 2013, 34, 48-57.
  15. Kleckner et al. Opportunities for cannabis in supportive care in cancer. Ther Adv Med Oncol, 2019, 11.
  16. Potenoy et al. Nabiximols for opioid-treated cancer patients with poorly-controlled chronic pain: a randomized, placebo-controlled, graded-dose trial. J Pain, 2012, 13, 438-439.
  17. Lichtman et al. Results of a double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled study of Nabiximols oromucosal spray as an adjunctive therapy in advanced cancer patients with chronic uncontrolled pain. J Pain Symptom Manage, 2018, 55, 179-188.

Related Articles