Israeli researchers at the forefront of cannabis research are now investigating the potential of a formulation of cannabis terpenes in treating viral infections, COVID-19 included.
Is cannabis effective against COVID-19? Researchers want to know
Secreted in the same glands that produce cannabinoids like THC and CBD, terpenes are aromatic oils that are responsible for the taste and smell of cannabis -- but that's not all that they do.
Research suggests that terpenes play a considerable role in not only tempering the intoxicating effects of THC, but also creating synergy with phytocannabinoids and even increasing their therapeutic value.
In the context of the coronavirus crisis, researchers at the Israel Institute of Technology are testing the therapeutic potential of cannabis terpenes.
During previous severe coronavirus outbreaks, such as those caused by the SARS coronavirus in 2002-2003, researchers found that cannabis terpenes reduced disease severity and impact in both in-vitro and in-vivo. In a 2007 study published in the Journal of Medical Chemistry, Chinese scientists concluded that the terpenes blocked a certain protein that allows the virus to replicate its genetic material.
“Our lab has been approved to operate as a corona lab, and in doing so, we are promoting two studies based on existing cannabis studies," Professor Dedi Meiri of the Israel Institute of Technology said in a statement for Health Europa.
“First, we will try to identify the plant’s own molecules that are capable of suppressing the immune response to the COVID-19 coronavirus – which causes inflammation and severe disease – to lower the immune system response without suppressing it, thereby providing better complementary treatment to the steroids, which completely suppress the immune system.”
Meiri and colleagues hope that the terpenes might modulate the effect of cytokine storms -- the overreaction of the body’s immune system that can cause complications and multiple organ failure.
The novel formulation is designed to be administered by direct inhalation.
Cytokines are small proteins released by many different cells in the body, including those of the immune system where they coordinate the body’s response against infection and trigger inflammation.
It's believed that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can trigger cytokine storm syndrome, attacking healthy lungs, eventually causing their collapse.
Besides looking into terpenes' potential to lower the immune system response, the Israeli researchers are also investigating how these cannabis molecules interact with the ACE2 receptor. It is thanks to this receptor, which is abundantly found in cells in the respiratory tract, that the coronavirus enters cells and begins replicating its genetic material.
“There is a process that examines the effect of cannabis molecules on proteins as well, and we are now examining which ones are relevant to the same receptor, with the goal of reducing its expression, making it difficult for the virus to enter the cell and proliferate," Meiri said.
Previously, researchers at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, found that certain Cannabis sativa extracts could be used in treatments to prevent infection with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
A word of caution
The results of these preliminary studies shouldn't by any means be considered an endorsement of cannabis in these trying times. COVID-19 is a severe respiratory illness that is known to aggressively attack the lungs. As such, those who smoke tobacco or marijuana might be at particular risk.
Research on cannabis as a COVID-19 treatment is still ongoing and it will likely take a long time before we have clear answers. In the meantime, don't self-medicate and risk making matters worse.