In the hopes of developing useful treatments in the fight against coronavirus, researchers at the University of Lethbridge have been working hard. Operating under a Health Canada license, the team has developed over 800 new cannabis strains. And so far, they’ve honed in on about a dozen strains of cannabis sativa that they theorize may help our bodies become less fertile breeding grounds for the coronavirus.
The research builds on the understanding that in order for the virus to take hold, it needs a receptor to attach to. Specifically, it needs the receptor ACE2 (or “angiotensin-converting enzyme II“), which tend to hang out in places like lung tissue, oral and nasal mucus, as well as in the kidneys, testes, and the GI tract.
The hypothesis that Kovalchuk and his co-researchers are developing is that cannabis, and in particular, those strains with high levels of the anti-inflammatory cannabinoid CBD, could lower the levels of ACE2. The lack of these receptors would make areas like the nose, mouth, and lungs a much less hospitable environment for the virus.
And that’s not all. The initial data from the study also suggest that some cannabis sativa extracts may suppress another critical protein required for COVID-19’s entry into host cells.
The preliminary research tested these strains on artificial human 3-D tissue models, so the research is a long way from complete. But Kovalchuk seems hopeful: “The extracts of our most successful and novel high-CBD cannabis sativa lines, pending further investigation, may become a useful and safe addition to the treatment of COVID-19 as an adjunct therapy.”
The results of the initial study, which still need to undergo the process of peer review, were published in April on Preprints, a website that allows scientists to disseminate the preliminary findings of their research. The website has proved to be a valuable resource for scientists in the struggle to find novel treatments for coronavirus.
“With the rapidly growing pandemic of COVID-19...there is an urgent need for new therapies and prevention strategies that can help curtail disease spread and reduce mortality,” explains Kovalchuk.
It’s important to note that what the team of researchers is working towards is not a vaccine for coronavirus. The process for vaccine development takes an entirely different approach to disease prevention. But these strains of cannabis could be useful for different kinds of adjunct therapies, as Dr. Kovalchuk explains in the study abstract:
“They can be used to develop easy-to-use preventative treatments in the form of mouthwash and throat gargle products for both clinical and at-home use. Such products ought to be tested for their potential to decrease viral entry via the oral mucosa.”
While it may seem obvious that these products “ought to be tested,” the road ahead remains a bumpy one. The lack of funding for clinical trials on cannabis is a serious limiting factor, even during a global pandemic when the search for usable treatments has taken on a new urgency.
In the National Post’s article on the topic, Kovalchuk lamented the lack of money to pay for the expensive clinical trials to develop new cannabis treatments: “We have clinicians who are willing to work with us but for a lot of companies in the cannabis business, it’s significant cash that they can’t afford.”
Obstacles to research on cannabis are not limited to Canada, either. But without robust clinical trials to test possible treatments like this one, the lack of reliable, clinical information about cannabinoids can reinforce the barriers to adequate funding.
“But there is ENORMOUS interest now,” said Kovalchuk in an interview with Deutsche Welle. “The tide is coming.”
As we’ve previously reported, scientists in Israel are having better luck getting their clinical trials underway. Currently, three separate studies looking into CBD’s possibilities as treatments for coronavirus are taking place. These studies are building on previous research which has highlighted CBD’s anti-inflammatory benefits to help regulate the body’s immune system.
All three clinical trials are taking place in Israeli hospitals alongside existing treatment options (like steroid therapy, for example). In fact, none of the currently ongoing studies have suggested that cannabinoids are likely to become the sole or primary treatment for coronavirus.
But cannabinoid therapy could prove to be one weapon in the arsenal of treatments currently being used. In Kovalchuk’s words: “Given the current dire and rapidly evolving epidemiological situation, every possible therapeutic opportunity and avenue must be considered.”