Lockdown restrictions may be easing worldwide, but COVID-19 remains a real threat. A vaccine is still months away, but research shows that help may come from an unexpected source: cannabidiol, also known as “CBD.”
Following a study conducted at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, researchers believe that strong cannabis strains could prove valuable in preventing or treating coronavirus infections.
They have published the results of their study on Preprints, in which they discuss analyzing hundreds of cannabis strains to identify how those with the highest CBD could reduce the coronavirus’s impact on the human body. [Preprint articles have not been peer-reviewed]
With two-thirds of Americans supporting the legalization of cannabis, this revelation is less taboo than it may once have been. But how does the research suggest CBD could help to fight COVID-19 infections, and where does the team believe this research could lead?
CBD’s Power to Combat Coronavirus Infections
University of Lethbridge researchers worked under a research license from Health Canada, the government department overseeing Canada’s federal health policy, to develop more than 800 new cannabis sativa lines and extracts. Cannabis sativa strains are high in CBD, one of cannabis’s core chemicals (alongside THC) with anti-inflammatory properties.
Their study led them to hypothesize that those extracts high in CBD could be leveraged to combat Covid-19 infections by modulating levels of ACE2 (angiotensin-converting enzyme II) in certain “gateway” tissues.
These include lung tissue, oral/nasal mucosa, gastrointestinal tract, kidney, and testes. The researchers believe that modulating ACE2 levels in these areas with CBD could help to decrease people’s susceptibility to Covid-19. As the coronavirus can only enter a human host with a receptor, i.e. ACE2, targeting these could reduce the risk of infection significantly.
“The virus has the capacity to bind to [ACE2], and pull it into the cell, almost like a doorway,” said Dr Igor Kovalchuck, one of the researchers and professor of Biological Sciences at Lethbridge, in an interview with CTV.
“Imagine a cell being a large building,” Dr Kovalchuck continued. “Cannabinoids decrease the number of doors in the building by, say, 70 percent […] the level of entry will be restricted. So, therefore, you have more chance to fight it.”
Harnessing the Medicinal Benefits of CBD
During the Lethbridge study, the team screened the cannabis sativa extracts using artificial 3D models of human intestinal, oral, and airway tissues. The researchers discovered that 13 of the extracts high in CBD were capable of modulating ACE2 effectively.
However, as these extracts are high in CBD but extremely low in THC, people would be unable to experience the high associated with cannabis.
The study has yet to be peer reviewed and verified, but the team believes that these sativa lines could be used to develop such preventive treatments as mouthwashes or “throat-gargle” solutions.
“Given the current dire and evolving epidemiological situation, every possible therapeutic opportunity and avenue must be considered”, the team concluded.
The university study was conducted in partnership with Pathway, a company working to develop cannabis-centric treatments for a number of diseases, and Swysh Inc., an oral health company specializing in cannabinoid-based products.
The increasing awareness of CBD’s effectiveness for pain as well as combating various other issues, including anxiety and arthritis, lends extra credibility to the products that Dr Kovalchuck suggests.
“There’s a lot of documented information about cannabis in cancer, cannabis in inflammation, anxiety, obesity, and whatnot,” Dr Kovalchuck told CTV. “When Covid-19 started, Olga [his wife and co-researcher] had the idea to revisit our data, and see if we can utilize it for Covid.”
However, Olga Kovalchuck stressed, “not any cannabis you would pick up at the store will do the trick.” The strains studied are cultivated for medicinal purposes and are high in CBD but low in THC, unlike the cannabis used for recreational purposes.
If the research is received positively by peers and sparks additional studies into combating COVID-19 with CBD, it could challenge common negative perceptions of cannabis further. However, it’s important to note that this study hasn’t been done on humans.
Gathering further evidence of CBD’s ability to fight COVID-19
Other parties are exploring the potential for treating COVID-19 with cannabis, including Israeli canna-tech company Stero Therapeutics.
This startup was ready to start its research into CBD’s effect on the coronavirus at the height of the global crisis. It planned to start clinical trials with 10 patients, all affected by COVID-19, at Petah Tikva’s Rabin Medical Center.
However, the trials had to be canceled when these patients became unavailable and a number of other medical centers in Israel shut their coronavirus wards down due to a massive reduction in new cases.
The company has switched its focus to Europe, where coronavirus cases remain high and more than 176,000 deaths have been reported as of June 30. Yet the number of cases has increased in Israel again since the trials were called off, which means Stero Therapeutics may be able to resume them locally after all.
Its goal is to determine whether CBD can increase the effectiveness of corticosteroids (a key treatment for autoimmune illnesses) or allow for steroid dosages to reduce while enhancing their effect.
Steroids have been employed in the fight against Covid-19, specifically its effect on acute infections, in which an over-response in the immune system is triggered. Known as a cytokine storm, this causes more damage to the organs (specifically the lungs) than the coronavirus itself.
Stero Therapeutics hopes that its research will demonstrate that CBD can be used to enhance steroids’ effectiveness in treating COVID-19 patients.
The research conducted by Stero Therapeutics and the University of Lethbridge’s team could open the doors to unexpected new ways to prevent, and treat, coronavirus. However, further studies will be required to verify the research and facilitate the creation of CBD-centric solutions suitable for COVID-19 patients.
Whatever the outcome, the need for an effective treatment is urgent. The U.S. government put Operation Warp Speed into effect in May, investing billions into furthering creation and testing of vaccines, but experts have warned against rushing into releasing one with low efficacy.
However, if life is to go on safely and economies are to survive, people may be willing to take the first treatment that arrives, CBD-based or not.