June 15, 2009 Using a highly sensitive new test, scientists in Europe are reporting "convincing evidence" that marijuana smoke damages the genetic material DNA in ways that could increase the risk of cancer.
Researchers note that toxic substances in tobacco smoke can damage DNA and increase the risk of lung and other cancers. However, there has been uncertainty over whether marijuana smoke has the same effect. Scientists are especially concerned about the toxicity of acetaldehyde, present in both tobacco and marijuana. However, it has been difficult to measure DNA damage from acetaldehyde with conventional tests.
The research was carried out by Rajinder Singh, Jatinderpal Sandhu, Balvinder Kaur, Tina Juren, William P. Steward, Dan Segerback and Peter B. Farmer from the Cancer Biomarkers and Prevention Group, Department of Cancer Studies and Molecular Medicine and Karolinska Institute, Sweden.
Raj Singh said: “Parts of the plant Cannabis sativa, also known as marijuana, ganja, and various street names, are commonly smoked as a recreational drug, although its use for such purposes is illegal in many countries.
The scientists describe development and use of a modified mass spectrometry method that showed clear indications that marijuana smoke damages DNA.
“There have been many studies on the toxicity of tobacco smoke. It is known that tobacco smoke contains 4000 chemicals of which 60 are classed as carcinogens. Cannabis in contrast has not been so well studied. It is less combustible than tobacco and is often mixed with tobacco in use. Cannabis smoke contains 400 compounds including 60 cannabinoids. However, because of its lower combustibility it contains 50% more carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons including naphthalene, benzanthracene, and benzopyrene, than tobacco smoke.”
The authors added: “It is well known that toxic substances in tobacco smoke can damage DNA and increase the risk of lung and other cancers. Scientists were unsure though whether cannabis smoke would have the same effect. Our research has focused on the toxicity of acetaldehyde, which is present in both tobacco and cannabis.”
The researchers add that the ability of cannabis smoke to damage DNA has significant human health implications especially as users tend to inhale more deeply than cigarette smokers, which increases respiratory burden. "The smoking of 3-4 cannabis cigarettes a day is associated with the same degree of damage to bronchial mucus membranes as 20 or more tobacco cigarettes a day," the team adds.
"In conclusion, these results provide evidence for the DNA damaging potential of cannabis [marijuana] smoke, implying that the consumption of cannabis cigarettes may be detrimental to human health with the possibility to initiate cancer development," the article states. "The data obtained from this study suggesting the DNA damaging potential of cannabis smoke highlight the need for stringent regulation of the consumption of cannabis cigarettes, thus limiting the development of adverse health effects such as cancer."
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- Singh et al. Evaluation of the DNA Damaging Potential of Cannabis Cigarette Smoke by the Determination of Acetaldehyde Derived N2-Ethyl-2′-deoxyguanosine Adducts. Chemical Research in Toxicology, 2009; 22 (6): 1181 DOI: 10.1021/tx900106y
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