EDMONTON - A University of Alberta study has concluded that medically induced munchies can improve life for people with advanced cancer.

In a finding that will surprise few with any experience with the therapy, a researcher has found that small doses of marijuana's active ingredient, THC, will improve the appetite of terminal cancer patients.

Wendy Wismer acknowledges there's plenty of anecdotal evidence concerning marijuana's effect on the desire for food. But her pilot study is the first to be conducted under rigorous, double-blind scientific controls.

Nearly three-quarters of patients who got THC pills said their food tasted better. Only 30 per cent of patients given placebos reported similar effects.

Appetite loss is a serious issue for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.

"Where loss of appetite is reported, it could be stimulated," said Wismer.

Nearly all patients that completed Wismer's study had reported a change in their sense of taste after the onset of their disease. About two-thirds rated that change mild or moderate.

Smell can also be affected during cancer therapy. Many patients say the odour of food puts them off.

But small doses of THC seemed to change that.

Most of the study's participants said food smelled better. Nearly three-quarters said they were able to taste differences between foods that used to all seem the same.

Patients told Wismer that the taste of savoury foods such as hamburgers, baked beans, chicken and mushrooms was especially improved. Those with the placebo noticed no change.

And, as a bonus, the THC seemed to help patients sleep more soundly, too.

Only a couple of participants reported feeling any of the drug's psychoactive effects.

Wismer points out that both THC and placebo participants consumed about the same amount of calories, but patients on pot seemed to enjoy them more.

"Their food-related quality of life was greatly enhanced," she said. "That also allows them to enjoy social situations a lot more ... because eating is something that's very social."

Wismer emphasized that her study involved only terminal cases. Only 21 of the 46 patients she began with lived long enough to complete the entire study.

That means that whether marijuana's effect on appetite can actually help cancer patients get better is still an open question.

But Wismer said restoring a little pleasure to someone's last months is worth doing regardless -- perhaps even more important than seeing patients gain weight, the usual way appetite stimulants are judged.

"When someone has six months or less to live, is that realistic? Are we better focused on the quality of life, on enjoying meals?"