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Scientists target COVID-19’s “inflammatory cascade” with cannabis

Scientists in Israel believe medical cannabis could tackle one of the major causes of death in severely ill COVID-19 patients.



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Early indications suggest that some COVID-19 patients experience a storm of ‘cytokines’, released when the body’s immune system recognises 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.

Preliminary investigations indicate that several types of cannabis may have the potential to prevent this life-threatening cascade of inflammation, scientists say.

A Biobank database of COVID-19 patients at Rambam Health Care Campus in Israel will help facilitate research into the possible therapeutic effects of cannabis in battling the deadly virus.

Study leader Dr. Igal Louria-Hayon, who hopes clinical trials can begin in the next few months, said: “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. At the outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic, we directed our efforts and experience to join the world-wide battle against this epidemic.”

Researchers have investigated multiple cannabis strains, and have now narrowed the field to about 15 species that appear to have the ability to prevent the intense inflammatory response experienced by some COVID-19 patients.

“We detected signs that cannabinoids contribute to the sophisticated fabric network of intercellular communications,” Dr. Louria-Hayon said. “Intercellular communication based on cannabis-like substances also exist in the immune system.

“If we understand how cannabinoid components are used in intercellular communication, we can help influence this communication in the event of a disease, to disrupt it or empower the communication to convey desired messages.”

In order to understand the mechanism of the effect of cannabis on COVID-19, researchers are drawing on inflammatory cell samples from COVID-19 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.”

Each cannabis strain has hundreds of active substances. The researchers aim 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,” said Dr. Louria-Hayon.

The purpose of the study 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. The uniqueness of our cannabis treatments is based on our understanding of the mechanisms of cannabinoids activity and scientific findings.”

Dr. Shlomit Yehudai-Reshef, director of the Rambam Medical Research Institute, added: “We saw the establishment of a Biobank pool for COVID-19 research as essential to 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.

“At Rambam, dozens of COVID-19 patients have been hospitalised in recent weeks, from whom blood samples were collected for clinical and research purposes.”