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updated 2/23/2011 12:04:44 PM ET 2011-02-23T17:04:44

The active ingredient in marijuana has been found to work on advanced-cancer patients in the same way as on healthy people by increasing their appetites and improving their sense of taste, suggesting the drug might be effective against the tendency of many patients to waste away.

In a new study, 73 percent of cancer patients who took THC pills every day for 18 days reported an increased appreciation for food, compared with 30 percent of patients who took a placebo. And 64 percent of patients who took THC reported an increased appetite, compared with 50 percent of those who took a placebo, the study said. THC stands for delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol.

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Marijuana has a reputation for giving healthy people "the munchies," but the study shows it has this effect on cancer patients, too, said study researcher Wendy Wismer, a food scientist at the University of Alberta in Canada.

"The fact that they did get hungry and enjoyed their meals is a huge improvement in quality of life," Wismer told MyHealthNewsDaily.

Patients with advanced cancer often experience a wasting syndrome, in which they burn through their calories at a high rate while lacking appetite, she said. This study shows that THC could help keep wasting syndrome at bay, Wismer said.

The study was published today (Feb. 22) in the journal Annals of Oncology.

Comparing appetites
Wismer and her colleagues gave THC pills or a placebo to 21 advanced-cancer patients whose disease had affected their eating habits for two or more weeks. Pharmacists gave THC pills to 11 patients and placebo pills to the other 10. Neither the patients nor the pharmacists knew which pills were placebos and which contained THC, the study said.

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The THC patients took 2.5 milligrams of the compound twice or three times a day for 18 days, the study said.

Overall, patients who took THC reported a greater appreciation of food and better appetite than did people who took the placebo. Fifty-five percent of patients who took THC said the drug made food taste better, while 10 percent of patients who took placebo said the same thing, the researchers reported.

Patients who took the THC pills did not consume more calories than the placebo patients during the 18 days. But 55 percent of the THC patients reported that savory foods tasted better, while none of the placebo patients reported this result, the study said.

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Patients who took the THC pills also were more relaxed and slept better than the patients who took placebo, the study found.

Cancer's side effects
Loss of appetite is a common problem for cancer patients, and anything that can help remedy the problem will improve their quality of life, said Dr. Joanne Mortimer, director of the women's cancers program at City of Hope Cancer Center in Los Angeles.

"Sometimes chemo makes food taste metallic and terrible, and for other people cancer can make people lose their sense of taste," Mortimer, who was not involved with the study, told MyHealthNewsDaily.

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Cancer treatments can nauseate patients so they can't keep anything down, she said. And some types of cancers promote release of hormones that cause the patient to have no appetite and quickly feel full, Mortimer said.

Marijuana is already known to improve symptoms of nausea in cancer patients, so it's interesting that THC can also function as an appetite-inducer, she said.

The findings should be tested in larger studies with more patients, the researchers said.

Pass it on: The active ingredient in pot may improve cancer patients' appetites.

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Follow MyHealthNewsDaily staff writer Amanda Chan on Twitter @ AmandaLChan.

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