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Can Cannabis treat coronavirus complications?

A doctor holds Cannabis used for medical and research purposes. (ElRoi/Shutterstock)
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Researchers at Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa are looking into the role of Cannabis in treating critically ill coronavirus patients

By ILANIT CHERNICK

In what could be a unique find, researchers at Haifa’s Rambam’s Health Care Campus in Israel are investigating the role of Cannabis in treating critically ill coronavirus patients.

The research, led by ed by the center’s Director Dr. Igal Louria-Hayon, are currently studying these effects with clinical trials scheduled to begin in the next few months.

According to Louria-Hayon, preliminary investigations indicate that several types of cannabis may have the potential to prevent the life-threatening cascade of inflammation in severely ill coronavirus patients. 

The researchers also pointed out that “information gathered to date indicates that a major cause of death in Covid-19 patients is the storm of ‘cytokines’ released when the body’s immune system recognizes a new and threatening invader.

“This may result in an out-of-control inflammatory response which worsens the illness and can even lead to death,” they added.

The purpose of the study, Louria-Hayon explained, is to treat the inflammatory storm as it develops and before the patient’s condition deteriorates and a ventilator is needed. 

“We hope that by decoding the cannabinoid activity mechanism during inflammatory storms, we can treat COVID-19 patients where conventional drugs have failed,” he said. “The uniqueness of our cannabis treatments is based on our understanding of the mechanisms of cannabinoids activity and scientific findings.”

Louria-Hayon said that the active components in cannabis trigger an internal system in the body that has been dubbed the “endocannabinoid system.” 

“Since the body naturally produces and utilizes substances similar in structure to the active components of cannabis, it may also respond broadly to the cannabis plant itself,” he said. 

Rambam said that a biobank database of COVID-19 patients at the medical center will help facilitate research into the possible therapeutic effects of cannabis in battling the deadly virus.

“Cannabis has known anti-inflammatory properties, and we have been conducting advanced research on the use of cannabis to treat other diseases with widespread inflammatory responses,”  Louria-Hayon explained. 

At the onset of the coronavirus epidemic, “we directed our efforts and experience to join the world-wide battle against this epidemic,” he added.

Addressing the different Cannabis strains being investigated, Louria-Hayon said that scientists at the Cannabis Research Center were able “to narrow the field to about 15 species strains” that could prevent the intense inflammatory response experienced by some coronavirus patients. 

“We hope that by decoding the cannabinoid activity mechanism during inflammatory storms, we can treat COVID-19 patients where conventional drugs have failed.”

“We detected signs that cannabinoids contribute to the sophisticated fabric network of intercellular communications,” he continued. “Intercellular communication based on cannabis-like substances also exists in the immune system.”

Louria-Hayon stressed that by understanding “how cannabinoid components are used in intercellular communication,” researchers can help with influencing this communication in the event of a disease, by disrupting it or by empowering the communication to convey desired messages.

 In order to understand the mechanism of the effect of cannabis on COVID-19, Louria-Hayon explained that researchers are drawing on inflammatory cell samples from coronavirus patients. “For the first time in Israel, a laboratory experiment has been undertaken to explore the effect of various types of cannabinoids on the white blood cells of COVID-19 patients,” he noted. 

He also highlighted that each cannabis strain has hundreds of active substances and the research team aims to examine the receptors to which these substances bond, the cellular messages that are communicated, and the extent to which cannabinoids reduce the inflammatory response. 

We believe that we will be able to accelerate the pace of investigation and move more rapidly to clinical applications, due to access to the National Biobank at Rambam,” Louria-Hayon added.

For Director of the Rambam Medical Research Institute, Dr. Shlomit Yehudai-Reshef, the establishment of a Biobank pool for COVID-19 research was an essential part of securing rapid answers and accelerating critically needed research. 

“Blood samples are the most accessible resource for continuous sampling – to understand biological processes during the disease and to develop vaccines and drugs,” she said, adding that blood samples have been collected from dozens of patients hospitalized at Rambam with coronavirus that will be used “for clinical and research purposes.

“Despite the complexity and high risk, we found a safe way to separate the white blood cells, including the immune cells from verified patients,” Yehudai-Reshef concluded.

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