Photo by Mathew Schwartz

This Month in Cannabis Research

Sometimes new science supports old ideas, and sometimes it cracks open completely new ones. There’s a bit of both happening in these four studies that piqued our attention in August 2018.

Going down the wormhole

In what they’re calling a “wild” finding, researchers at the University of California, Riverside, have discovered that parasitic hookworms manipulate mammalian endocannabinoid systems to better infect their hosts. (The endocannabinoid system is present in all mammals, and contains the receptors that respond to cannabis.)

“Upon worm infection, the host’s intestines produce these cannabis-like molecules maybe as a safety net to dampen pain response,” said project co-leader Nicholas V. DiPatrizio, in a release for the UCR School of Medicine. “What we now have found is that the worms, too, are producing these natural cannabinoids throughout the infection process and especially when the worms penetrate the skin, further dampening the host’s pain response.”

The study appears in the Journal of Infection and Immunity, and is significant for many reasons. First, it shows that non-mammallian species can also have endocannabinoid systems, a surprise to researchers. “What it is telling us is that the pathway is evolutionarily conserved across a vast number of species,” said co-author and parasitologist Adler R. Dillman. “This clearly is an old and important system in the body that predates humans.”

Second, the findings could lead to better treatment for certain inflammatory diseases. “The anti-inflammatory endocannabinoid system gives us insight into potential therapeutic targets for not only hookworm infection, but also celiac disease and inflammatory bowel disease,” said DiPatrizio.

The researchers are thrilled about their team’s “wildest discovery, its biggest finding,” stressing that until now, no one knew that worms could manipulate endocannabinoid responses. “Our work has provoked more interesting research questions for us to pursue, and could lead to promising treatments,” said Dillman. “We are at just the initial point of discovery.”

A win for IBD patients

Finally, science supports what many inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) patients have been saying all along: cannabis helps. A recent mouse study in The Journal of Clinical Investigations offers hope for the 233,000 Canadians and millions worldwide who suffer autoimmune inflammatory bowel diseases such as Chrohn’s and colitis.

To put it very simply, it has been well known for a while now that epithelial cells regulate the gut microbiome, preventing harmful cells from getting in, although researchers knew they were missing part of the story. As reported in Popular Science, scientists at the University of Massachusetts discovered the cannabis connection accidentally, while they were trying to understand the basic regulatory practices of a healthy intestine.

As it turns out, the missing piece is endocannabinoids, the body’s natural cannabinoids, similar to those found in cannabis, but produced by – you guessed it – the endocannabinoid system. Endocannabinoids are a key part in mouse guts’ gatekeeping system, working alongside epithelial cells.

“Although the current research is in mice, it points to a possible result in humans as well,” writes Popular Science scribe Kat Eschner. “It would help explain why cannabinoids seem to provide relief for people with IBD, because they perform basically the same regulatory function as the endocannabinoids would if the body were producing them itself.”

It gets better. Because epithelial cells exist throughout the body, the study’s findings could lead to better understanding of a variety of autoimmune conditions.

“There’s been a lot of anecdotal evidence about the benefits of medical marijuana, but there hasn’t been a lot of science to back it up,” study co-author Beth McCormick told Newsweek. “For the first time, we have an understanding of the molecules involved in the process and how endocannabinoids and cannabinoids control inflammation,” she said. “This gives clinical researchers a new drug target to explore to treat patients that suffer from inflammatory bowel diseases, and perhaps other diseases, as well.”

Fighting back against drug-resistant infections

Drug-resistant pathogens are an urgent problem in hospitals, and increasingly in our communities. In a new study published in the International Journal of Health Sciences and Research, researchers write that identifying safe alternatives to control super-Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, better know as the super bug MRSA, is essential.

“Nature is the only source to provide a good variety of chemical compounds that can be used for new drug discovery,” and study authors have turned to cannabis to help, underscoring earlier findings that its antimicrobial properties make it a “potent agent” for treating drug-resistant infections. Find the full study here.

Are the dogs going to pot?

Or maybe pot is going to the dogs? Either way, based on a new study out of Cornell University, this is actually a good thing, at least for dogs with osteoarthritis. The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science found that arthritic dogs treated with cannabidiol (CBD) showed significantly decreased pain and significantly increased activity compared with a placebo group. Dog owners did not report any side effects.

This is exciting news for pet parents, and supports the importance of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association’s push for greater inclusion in the Cannabis Act.