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Mike Fata, co-founder and president of Manitoba Harvest, holds un-shelled hemp seed in his Winnipeg facility May 30, 2011. (John Woods/The Globe and Mail)
Mike Fata, co-founder and president of Manitoba Harvest, holds un-shelled hemp seed in his Winnipeg facility May 30, 2011. (John Woods/The Globe and Mail)

‘Miracle cures’ such as hemp oil can hurt more than help Add to ...

Internet medicine, conspiracy theories and misinterpretation of medical evidence are a dangerous mix.

That became all too clear in the case of an Ottawa father who, last month, was officially denied a say in his 18-month-old son’s treatment. The boy had been diagnosed with leukemia and the doctors recommended chemotherapy. The father refused.

The child’s disease – acute lymphoblastic leukemia – has a 95-per-cent cure rate when chemotherapy, the standard front-line treatment, is used.

But the boy’s father wanted him to be treated with hemp oil instead, an idea he got from Rick Simpson, a Canadian celebrity in cannabis circles who claims that hemp oil can cure cancer and numerous other afflictions. As a helpful caveat, Simpson’s website is careful to point out that while hemp oil can cure disease, it will not provide those who take it with eternal life.

Doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario intervened, the Children’s Aid Society got involved, and the boy is getting chemotherapy after all. The father, who started a petition seeking support for his cause, told reporters he will continue to fight for the right to use hemp oil as a cancer treatment.

But this is not the first or only case of hemp oil being used in place of a proven conventional treatment. In recent months, the movement to embrace hemp oil as a cure-all “natural” remedy that can heal without any of the toxicity of traditional treatments has begun to take hold.

Hemp oil, also known as cannabis oil and hash oil, contains tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, a compound that’s known as a cannabinoid. Proponents claim that cannabinoids lock onto the body’s cannabinoid receptors to fight disease.

The concern over the growing popularity of hemp oil and cannabinoids more generally was enough to prompt the Canadian Cancer Society to put a warning on its website last fall warning about them. A Google search for “hemp oil cure” will yield about 245,000 results. Among those are convincing testimonials from people who beat all the odds to survive when they eschewed the traditional treatment in favour of hemp oil. The Ottawa father told a reporter at The Ottawa Citizen that he had so many facts about the proven abilities of hemp oil that he could “sink a battleship.”

So, what are the facts? There’s no end to the number of websites pointing to medical studies that show how hemp oil zaps tumours and kills cancer cells. The vast majority of the studies were conducted in mice, or on tissue in petri dishes, and the results of those kinds of studies often don’t translate well to humans. Cancer Research UK also combed through the evidence and pointed to one cannabinoid trial that involved humans. Nine people with advanced glioblastoma multiforme, a brain tumour, were given purified THC in their brains. The results showed that eight people had some response to the treatment, but all of the study participants died within a year. There’s no proof that the THC had a meaningful impact.

Dr. Charles Loprinzi, the Regis professor of breast-cancer research at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., has not studied hemp oil. But he’s seen plenty of examples of overhyped miracle “cures” that fail to live up to their promise. Even standard medical advances are hard to come by, with plenty of money and time spent on new drugs or treatments that ultimately fail to make a difference in patients.

“There are a lot of things that go by the wayside,” he said.

It’s hard not to get pulled in by the lure of fantastic promises, particularly in the face of grim diagnoses.

And it’s still possible that scientists will discover a certain cannabinoid is effective at targeting a certain disease, or works well in a certain group of patients. Much more research is being done in this area and it will be interesting to watch the results. It’s also worth noting that the scientists conducting the studies are typically using high-quality isolated cannabinoid compounds, not an oil they bought online or made in their basement.

Amid all the questions, one thing is clear. The peddling of Internet testimonials and the falsehoods that these miracle “cures” are a better alternative to conventional treatments doesn’t help anyone. It can only stand to hurt those who buy into the claims.

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Follow on Twitter: @carlyweeks

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