Cannabinoids as Potential Cancer Therapeutics: The Concentration Conundrum

Background: Studies have reported that cannabinoids, in particular Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC) and cannabidiol (CBD), significantly reduce cancer cell viability in vitro. Unfortunately, treatment conditions vary significantly across reports. In particular, a majority of reports utilize conditions with reduced serum concentrations (0-3%) that may compromise the growth of the cells themselves, as well as the observed results. Objectives: This study was designed to test the hypothesis that, based on their known protein binding characteristics, cannabinoids would be less effective in the presence of fetal bovine serum (FBS). Moreover, we wished to determine if the treatments served to be cytotoxic or cytostatic under these conditions. Methods: Six cancer cell lines, representing two independent lines of three different types of cancer (glioblastoma, melanoma, and colorectal cancer [CRC]), were treated with 10 μM pure Δ9-THC, CBD, KM-233, and HU-331 for 48 h (in the presence or absence of FBS). Cell viability was measured with the MTT assay. Dose-response curves were then generated comparing the potencies of the four cannabinoids under the same conditions. Results: We found that serum-free medium alone produces cell cycle arrest for CRC cells and slows cell growth for the other cancer types. The antineoplastic effects of three of the four cannabinoids (Δ9-THC, CBD, and KM-233) increase when serum is omitted from the media. In addition, dose-response curves for these drugs demonstrated lower IC50 values for serum-free media compared with the media with 10% serum in all cell lines. The fourth compound, HU-331, was equally effective under both conditions. A further confound we observed is that omission of serum produces dramatic binding of Δ9-THC and CBD to plastic. Conclusions: Treatment of cancer cells in the absence of FBS appears to enhance the potency of cannabinoids. However, omission of FBS itself compromises cell growth and represents a less physiological condition. Given the knowledge that cannabinoids are 90-95% protein bound and have well-known affinities for plastic, it may be ill-advised to treat cells under conditions where the cells are not growing optimally and where known concentrations cannot be assumed (i.e., FBS-free conditions).


Keywords:

CBD; HU-331; KM-233; THC; colorectal cancer; glioblastoma; melanoma; plasma protein binding; serum-free media.

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