By Melissa Hutsell
Photos courtesy of CannaKids
For decades, scientists have raced toward a cure for cancer. Simultaneously, Americans have lived under prohibition. Now—as the cannabis movement makes serious strides worldwide—finding a cure is closer than ever. Coincidence? Tracy Ryan thinks not.
Tracy, founder of CannaKids and Saving Sophie, is spearheading clinical research into cannabis’s efficacy as a therapeutic for childhood and adult cancers.
Her daughter, Sophie, inspires her life’s mission.
Sophie was diagnosed with a brain tumor three months before her first birthday. Her first MRI scan revealed she had a low grade, Optic Pathway Glioma tumor.
The tumor has a 90% survival rate, and an 85% chance of recurrence. The only option for Sophie was chemotherapy, which doctors hoped would stop the development of the tumor.
Chemo was never meant to eradicate the mass, Tracy explains. Doctors suggested that even minimal shrinkage would be a huge success.
Medical professionals also predicted that, “Sophie would have partial, if not complete blindness, with zero chance of saving her sight,” Tracy explains to the Emerald.
Sophie began a treatment regimen consisting of chemo, and highly concentrated cannabis oil. Within months, her tumor shrank, allowing Sophie to keep her sight. It also allowed her to stop needing blood transfusions.
According to Cancer.org, chemo destroys blood-making cells in bone marrow, causing blood cell counts to drop. After multiple transfusions, Sophie stopped needing them while still on chemo, which was medically unheard of, says Tracy. The doctors were astounded.
They credited cannabis oil.
Today, Sophie—who just turned seven this October—continues to take the cannabis/chemo combo treatment with positive results.
Her story is documented in the Netflix documentary Weed the People. The film spotlights the use of cannabis to treat pediatric cancers, and took approximately six years to complete before its release in 2018.
Sophie’s successful treatment motivated the Ryans to create CannaKids, a cooperative that develops and supplies patients with high-grade cannabis oil in California.
Tracy also operates SavingSophie.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising funds and research for children with cancer, epilepsy and autism.
The organization is currently designing observational studies for kids with autism, Tracy explains. “We believe we have a medicine that could really help these kiddos, but we need to prove it.”
“We need true data backing it up by third party entities before we make any solid claims or think about moving it further down that path,” she adds.
“It’s going to take a lot of people to get this plant the spotlight it deserves and figure it out [how to] develop novel drugs to go into the Western marketplace.”
“As they say, it takes a village, and this is no different,” she adds.
On April 23, 2018, Sophie underwent surgery to remove a section of the tumor.
“I knew that if I was to get my hands on this tissue, it would be my one and only opportunity to actually get personalized clinical trials for Sophie,” Tracy explains.
She joined forces with researchers at a university in California who performed a patient derived xenograft (PDX). PDX, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), involves the process of taking tissue from tumors in humans, and implanting them into mice for research purposes.
“We now have Sophie’s brain tumor tissue not just growing in typical, traditional mice, but humanized mice […],” says Tracy.
Humanized mice, reports Jackson Laboratory, contain human cells: a strand of DNA, tissue, tumors, or any piece of the human microbiome.
“Scientists can take a tumor from a patient, cut it into pieces, and put these pieces into multiple mice,” explains the laboratory. “Through this process, you can end up with dozens of mice, each with tumors nearly identical to each other and to the original human patient’s tumor.”
Researchers then treat these mice with alternative drugs in order to find an effective treatment for the specific type of tumor, which for ethical reasons, cannot be done in humans.
Another reason this is exciting, says Tracy, is because the failure rate when going from traditional mice to humans is more than 90 percent.
According to data published in the American Journal of Translational Research, “The average rate of successful translation from animal models to clinical cancer trials is less than 8%. Animal models are limited in their ability to mimic the extremely complex process of human carcinogenesis, physiology and progression.”
When researchers examined the mice with Sophie’s tissues, “the real excitement started to happen,” says Tracy. The results, once again, astounded medical professionals.
From the neck down, “Her immune system is functioning at levels in which no healthy adult has ever functioned,” Tracy says.
Researchers wanted to know more; so they enrolled more patients in a clinical trial.
It’s in the Blood
In partnership with the university, CannaKids launched the trial, which focuses on the efficacy of cannabis as a treatment for cancer. Researchers are also studying the effects of cannabinoids on Natural Killer Cells (NK cells)—an innate part of the immune system.
NK cells “play pivotal functions in cancer immune surveillance. [They] can eliminate a variety of abnormal or stressed cells without prior sensitization, and even preferentially kill stem-like cells or cancer stem cells,” according to research published in Frontiers in Immunology.
While she cannot reveal much about the trial, Tracy says the early results have proved promising—not just for Sophie, but cancer sufferers everywhere.
The trial launched in May 2018, and consists of studying the blood of patients who use cannabis. It involves 14 participants, including Sophie.
Conditions of participants range from ovarian cancer, breast cancer, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Osteosarcoma, and more. Some were “cannabis naive” previous to the trial while others were not.
All are provided with a nurse, and custom dosing protocols for cannabis. Patients are all are on CannaKids oils.
Through blood draws, researchers examine their immune systems, and their response to cannabinoids like WIN 55,212-2 (Win 55), a chemical which produces similar effects as cannabinoids.
“Finding a Way Around the Potholes of Life”
Tracy says the scientists are moving into human models using cannabinoids.
“I call myself a person who finds a way around the potholes of life,” Tracy explains. “We’re able to navigate around Schedule I by studying the blood of patients who consume cannabis, and by getting unrestricted, synthetic cannabinoids into the lab and in animal models.”
The lab plans to study more synthetic cannabinoids—such as CBG and CBD.
Eventually, they hope to bring in whole plant molecules. “However [what’s] been discovered in the last year and a half should have taken about five years and $10 million dollars,” says Tracy. Because the advancements this cancer lab possess—and how far they are in figuring out why were getting cancer in the first place—they’ve been able to hyper speed these findings.
Findings, so far, suggest cannabis plays a role in immunology in both children and adults.
“We’re on the path to understanding what that mechanism of action is taking place […] that’s leading [medical cannabis] patients to have a much better overall health profile,” Tracy explains.
“We’re starting to understand [the] immunological response that these patients are having that helps them get rid of disease when otherwise they […] weren’t expected to have these wonderful outcomes,” Tracy continues, “Why are they feeling better? Why is their cancer shrinking faster? Why have they been able to stay in remission when they never have before.”
Researchers think they know how, and why, recurrences happen in patients who’ve completed chemo.
“We’re seeing so many people with recurring cancer after chemo because it [attacks] your immune system, which keeps you healthy and keeps those cancer stem cells from turning into actual cancer,” Tracy explains, noting that everyone has cancer stem cells in their bodies.
Scientists also think they know why Sophie developed a tumor, and how to treat it—without chemo.
The “big hope” is replacing chemo altogether with immunology, says Tracy. “As a whole, we’re going to be able to help not just cancer patients, […] but many people that have a broken immune system, and as such are suffering from disease due to it.”
Tracy hopes “to bring forth nontoxic, combo therapies that could either reduce the need for so much chemo, or make these disease ones that aren’t terminal—just chronic.” That alone is a major win.
“It’s my hope that within the next year, we’ll know enough to start creating some combo therapies [made from cannabis and probiotics] that people can buy over the counter,” says Tracy.
In the meantime, she’ll champion research for as long as she has breath in her lungs. “This research is mandatory; we cannot advance this medicine without it,” she says.