Wellness Watch by Jeannie Wraight
Cannabinoids may be effective in treating HIV, not just relieving symptoms
The legalization of medical marijuana has been a hot topic for years, often provoking fierce opinions on both sides. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center (“Majority Now Supports Legalizing Marijuana”) shows that for the first time the majority of U.S. citizens now support the legalization of pot. Regardless of whether the fight for the right to party ever comes to fruition in more than a few states, one benefit of this battle has become evident. The discussion on medical marijuana and the increasing support of legalizing weed has cracked open the door for universities and biotech companies to research the therapeutic benefits of cannabinoids and the results pouring in are nothing short of astonishing by any standard.
The benefits of marijuana have long been reported for people suffering from HIV/AIDS and cancer treatment, although there is not a lot of direct research on the medicinal value of the cannabis plant for symptoms related to HIV. The fact that marijuana as a whole can’t be patented does not fare well for it being researched by Big Pharma as there is therefore limited profit to be made from therapeutics from the plant itself. The legal status of marijuana and its stigma also hampered research as medical marijuana is not legal in all fifty states.
However, a wealth of anecdotal data on the benefits of cannabinoids for HIV and cancer patients does exist. Numerous studies describe findings of self-reported benefits, including a decrease in nausea, stimulation of appetite, decrease in nerve pain, particularly in people suffering from HIV-related peripheral neuropathy and relief from depression, anxiety, and sleeping problems.
Mounting data shows that cannabis, or more precisely, cannabinoids (a group of compounds present in the cannabis plant) may hold the potential to play much more of a role in the treatment of HIV then just the relief of symptoms. Growing evidence has shown that cannabinoids may be invaluable in the treatment of inflammatory diseases such as HIV, as well as inflammatory bowel disease and Alzheimer’s, just to name a few. These effects appear to be mainly mediated by cannabinoid 2 (CB2) receptors.
CB2 receptors are located in the immune system and hematopoietic cells (cells which give rise to other cells such as T-cells and macrophages—the main targets of HIV). CB2 receptors are activated by cannabinoids. Unlike CB1, which is located throughout the body and particularly on nerve cells in the brain, CB2 does not mediate the psychoactive effects for which cannabis is known.
Various agents that activate CB2 receptors and how this process works are currently being researched in HIV. As our knowledge of cannabinoids and CB2 agonism grows, so does the likelihood that this research will equate to the successful development of cannabinoid-based antiviral agents to combat HIV.
Research conducted at Temple University School of Medicine and published in the May issue of Journal of Leukocyte Biology has focused on macrophages and inflammation. Whereas the available HIV treatments as well as the majority of HIV research focus on T-cells, macrophages appear to play a pivotal part in HIV. Macrophages, long-lived cells targeted by HIV, may be the primary source of HIV reservoirs and thus the main hindrance to eradicating HIV from the body, evidence suggests. Inflammation, which persists in people with HIV despite effective viral-suppressing ARTs, is the leading cause of many “non-AIDS related” complications such as neurocognitive dysfunction, cardiovascular disease (CVD), bone diseases, and cancers. This study showed that the administration of cannabinoid agonists, used as an anti-inflammatory agent, decreased the level of HIV in macrophage cells, providing more evidence that cannabinoids hold the ability to limit HIV replication.
Senior investigator, Yuri Persidsky, MD, PhD, chair of the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at Temple University School of Medicine, and his team examined the connection between CB2 and the neurocognitive damage which results from inflammation associated with long-term HIV infection. It is hypothesised that macrophages may be responsible for introducing HIV into the brain, which eventually initiates HIV-associated cognitive disorder. Persidsky’s research suggests that reducing HIV in macrophages may reduce inflammation in the central nervous system and thus the neurocognitive damage caused by HIV.
A 2012 NIH-funded study conducted by Mount Sinai School of Medicine demonstrated the ability of cannabinoids to suppress HIV infection by blocking the signaling process between HIV and CXCR4, one of the main receptors on T-cells which HIV attaches in order to penetrate and infect the cell.
Several cannabinoid-based therapeutics are being studied and developed as CB2 agonists. Cannabis Science, an emerging biotechnology company, is working to develop a phytocannabinoid-based HIV Tat inhibitor (CS-TATI-I) to inhibit HIV-associated Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS). Harvard Medical School studies found that cannabinoids inhibit KS tumor growth.
When asked of the potential for cannabinoids to be used as treatments for diseases such as HIV, Dr. Bob Melamede, president and director of Cannabis Science, stated: “If people are able to objectively look at the medical research on cannabis, there would likely be no debate regarding the widespread need for cannabis-based medicines.”
Full text of the Pew study: www.people-press.org/files/legacy-pdf/4-4-13%20Marijuana%20Release.pdf.
Jeannie Wraight is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of HIV and HCV Haven (www.hivhaven.com) and a blogger and writer for TheBody.com. She is a member of the Board of Directors of Health People and an advisor to TRW (Teach me to Read and Write). She lives with her husband in the Bronx, New York.