Marijuana for Inflammation: How Scientists are Building New Medicines With the Help of Weed
Inflammation is part of the body’s natural response to injury. It alerts the body to damage, and can help fight off infections. But it can also be a source of pain. Worse, chronic inflammation has been linked to certain heart conditions, obesity, and diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and aspirin work to block the source of inflammation. However, their pain relieving properties are limited, and can be damaging to the liver and/or kidneys. This has pushed scientists to look into alternative drugs, like Marijuana for inflammation.
Cannaflavin-A and Cannaflavin-B
The plant C. sativa, in all its myriad forms, produces well over a hundred pharmacologically interesting molecules. Two of them, called cannaflavin-A and -B, were discovered in the mid-80s. These two compounds have incredibly potent anti-inflammatory properties, thirty times more powerful than aspirin by one estimate. However, due to the expansion of the drug war, little research was done in this area until a few years ago. Now, researchers in Canada have uncovered how C. sativa makes these two compounds. This work provides a potential pathway to creating powerful new cannabis-based medicines for inflammation.
The researchers first studied the molecular structure of the cannaflavins to see what made them unique. Next, they next had to find the right genes in the C. sativa genome. Using the information from step one, they had some idea of what to look for. They made a list of candidate genes, and then narrowed it down one by one. From this, they discovered which two genes were responsible for the final steps in making both cannaflavin A and B.
Building A Path to New Medicines
So, why should we care how cannabis makes these two wonder molecules? Knowing they’re in there means cannabis can fight my inflammation, right? Not exactly. While cannaflavin-A and -B are incredibly potent, they exist in tiny amounts in the plant. In an interview with the Toronto Star, Dr. Tariq Akhtar, the lead researcher on the study, estimates that the cannaflavins only account for 0.014% of the plant’s weight. Further, we have no idea if these compounds survive either combustion or vaporization. It is possible you might get some from other preparations, like an oil or tincture. However, the quantities are so low that you likely won’t get any real benefit from them.
No, the real excitement here is the discovery of the genes involved. This research allows scientists to re-create the pathway on a much larger scale using transgenic technology. “Transgenic” means putting genes from one species into another. With this latest research, we can put those cannabis genes into either bacteria or yeast, feed them the necessary molecular building blocks, and then extract the final product in large quantities. That may sound like science fiction, but we already do this on a regular basis; in fact, it’s where diabetics get their insulin from.
It will be quite some time before this work is translated into functional medicine. But it’s hard not to be excited by the promise of having such powerful new anti-inflammatory medicines. Assuming that the side-effects are minimal, these compounds could make a powerful therapy for arthritis or other diseases of chronic inflammation. In the meantime, this work demonstrates why we need more research into the therapeutic properties of marijuana.
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About the author:
J. Brandon Lowry holds a PhD from the Institute of Molecular Biology at the University of Oregon. A digital nomad and freelance writer, he writes about cannabis, science, health, and travel. He is also assistant editor at Midnight Mosaic Fiction.