Two Oregon universities have discovered that cannabis is a rare substance found naturally. This makes it a promising tool for preventing COVID-19. Published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Natural Products, the study identified three cannabis compounds–non-psychoactive precursors found in the plant before it’s converted into the stuff that gets you high–as being notably effective at blocking the entry of SARS-COV-2 into human cells by glomming onto the virus’s spike protein.
The study is an early sign that cannabis could be an effective tool in the arsenal of global coronavirus responses; but with piecemeal laws and pushback from federal agencies, the future of cannabis in COVID-19 treatment remains unknown. : Cannabis Can Prevent COVID-19., Dr. Richard van Breemen, first author on the study and professor of medicinal chemistry at the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, tells Motherboard about his findings, the public response to the study, the legal challenges he encountered in this research, and why cannabis-derived gummies might just be an important public health intervention.
Your paper is really making the rounds–congratulations! Could you please walk me through the key findings? Dr. Richard van Breemen : We have always been interested in natural products with medicinal value. We created COVID to explore natural products that could either stop the virus infecting cells, or infuse them with replication and infect others. We chose to attack the virus right at its source, the point it enters a cell. This is the exact point where antibodies attack the virus. We did it anyway. When we proposed this to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) back in 2020, one of the reviewers said, no one’s made the proof of principle that this can work.
They didn’t give it to me. But we did it anyway and established the principle that small molecules, including natural products like hemp, can stop the virus infecting human cells. We also looked at red clover, red clover, and licorice and discovered that three compounds in hemp had the highest ability to bind with the spike protein. We found that several of these compounds bind to the spike protein, and that they can work together more effectively than using just one compound. So we think the mixture of cannabidiolic acid (CBD-A), cannabigerolic acid (CBG-A), and tetrahydrocannabinol acid (THC-A) would be more effective than any one of them alone. This is a sign that a supplement containing a complex plant extract would be more effective than any one of them individually.
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That is right. We tested extracts from hemp and found that there was a trace of THC-A. We identified it and were allowed to do so, however, this was not permitted by campus rules. It was not allowed to test it or purify it, as it could be converted into THC. If one heats it, the acid group can be removed and chemically it transforms into a psychoactive substance, but THC-A alone is not psychoactive. CBD-A nor CBG-A are psychoactive, right? This is why it’s a bit more complex than just smoking marijuana to prevent COVID-19. This is something that could be taken orally. I can see oral administration as a supplement, oil, or pill. We all know that COVID can be transmitted to others. We all worry about getting sick.
This is when I recommend that you take a supplement that can prevent infection. These compounds are not recommended for people who are severely ill or in hospital. Combinations of therapies are needed, including drugs that can stop the virus at different stages in its life cycle. However, as a weakly active but still effective preventative measure, I believe we need to use them. This is a great place to use this dietary supplement. It can be a good dietary supplement. A stands for an acid group. This is a carboxylic group that can be removed after treatment. If these hemp products contain these compounds, heat can cause chemical decomposition of CBD-A, CBG-A, or THC-A conversion.
We know that CBD, CBG, and THC do not protect against the virus when smoked. So, we would recommend in favor of an CBD oral administration of these compounds instead of smoking them, inhaling them from vaping. So, just to be clear: Smoking these compounds would not have the same effect on COVID-19 infection risk as ingesting them orally? It is likely to have a lower effect. Although I haven’t performed the experiments to determine the speed of the conversion and the temperature limits, I do know that it is likely to be less effective. We do know that cannabidiolic acids are unstable in heat.
However, we also know that CBD-A could be used to “prime” the immune systems for COVID-19 protection. Are you able to comment on this finding? That one I haven’t had the chance to see yet. There have been reports that CBD and other cannabinoids have anti-inflammatory properties. For COVID patients suffering from a “cytokinestorm,” an immune response that causes lots of inflammation, any treatment that can reduce that inflammation is a positive thing. The CBD could be a great treatment for this condition. However, you mentioned that there has been some resistance from the NIH regarding funding. Could you please tell me more about the legal framework surrounding cannabis-based medicine and research. Are there any other obstacles that you have encountered in your research and in this particular study?
Legal issues arise when the federal government makes a rule and the states make another. Every year, we are witnessing changes in the rules governing hemp use and how constituents can be used for research purposes or personal use. The Department of Agriculture currently allows hemp cultivation. Oregon State University has a research center that helps develop products for all purposes, including fiber to be used for agriculture or medicinal use. My research group is particularly interested in the medicinal benefits of hemp. Cannabidiol is a CBD drug that has been approved to treat juvenile epilepsy. It is a complex plant. It’s possible that other drugs will eventually be developed and discovered from hemp. Perhaps we have just discovered one.
Are you a believer that federal legalization could open up new areas for research and development in this area?
Absolutely, yes. Hemp is a unique plant because it contains many different classes of compounds that are not found anywhere else in nature. It is rich in bioavailability compounds. We often find compounds in plants that are effective in the laboratory and could have a beneficial effect on our health. However, when we do a human study on them, we discover that they aren’t as active as they appear to be in a lab setting. Hemp is different. Many active components of hemp have been identified. They are active when taken orally, inhaled, or transdermal. Hemp is unusually high in compounds with biological activity. They can reach the bloodstream and cause effects. They are also extremely safe!
Do you have any ideas for the future? How do you envision your findings contributing to scientific understanding of cannabis, COVID and other related substances? The federal response to the emerging strains and pandemic.
Answering to one of my grant reviews, I found that small molecules can block viral infection. This is a significant piece of basic science research. We also discovered compounds in hemp that, at least when cultured with live virus, could prevent cells from becoming infected. It would be great to have a follow-up study to determine the optimal oral dose. How do we keep the doses at the right levels? And how can we prevent transmission or infection by limiting the number of doses we give each day. We have a product that I believe should be safe to use. I can see hemp extracts being used in helping people to stay healthy and prevent them from getting sick with COVID.
Did you have a chance to see any of the answers to your research online, or the most important memes about it?
I try to respond as quickly as possible to all messages. I haven’t had the chance to see the responses on the internet. It’s a great feeling to see that people are paying attention to our work. It’s a great thing that people see it as important. It was our hope that it would be so. It’s a great idea and everyone loves it.
We are grateful for your time. Do you have any other suggestions?
I will just keep my fingers crossed that my next NIH grant application is funded.
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