Researchers at Temple University School of Medicine’s Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and Center for Substance Abuse Research (CSAR) announced earlier this month that they may have found a treatment for HIV in marijuana’s main active component, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Researchers found that the chemical compound in THC appears to damage and weaken the most common strain of the HIV virus. It’s still early in the research process, but scientists think this finding may lead to either a dramatic slowdown in how quickly HIV spreads in the body, allowing antiretrovirals (drug therapy cocktails) a chance to suppress the virus, or even remove it completely from the body.
HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS. The human body can never completely rid itself of HIV, since it hides in certain types of cells and reproduces at a slowed rate and leads to chronic inflammation.
Chronic inflammation contributes to the development of many chronic medical illnesses, including cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, osteoporosis and cancer.
Scientists and doctors have experimented with numerous drug therapies over the years hoping to find a cure for this disease. A cure has not yet been found, but researchers have been able to keep persons infected with HIV to live longer. However, exposure to even low levels of HIV replication and inflammation for a long period of time has led to the emergence of a spectrum of conditions, such as HIV-associated neurocognitive disorder (HAND).
Some patients living with HIV/AIDS use medical marijuana to help them cope with their symptoms, such as anxiety, appetite loss, chronic pain and nausea. A report from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) also found that one study reported that patients who consume cannabis therapeutically are 3.3 times more likely to adhere to their antiretroviral therapy regimens than non-cannabis users.
If the results of the study hold true, ingesting THC in an HIV positive person’s bloodstream may do more than help with pain — it may lead to a large decrease in or the complete removal of HIV in the body’s cells.
THC and cells
Macrophages are one of the many types of cells that help the body’s immune response fight infections, but are also one of the first cells to be infected with HIV once it enters the body.
A type of white blood cell called lymphocytes does most of the work when it comes to fighting infections by tracking down and destroying germs with antibodies, but macrophages are attracted to damaged cells and act as a support system for lymphocytes by surrounding and engulfing them and alerting them to new threats in the body.
Macrophages are found in every organ of the human body and circulate in the blood, which is why it’s currently believed that macrophages may be responsible for introducing HIV into the brain, ultimately initiating HIV-associated cognitive decline.
In this most recent study, the researchers treated HIV-infected cells with one of three different synthetic THC or CB2-activating compounds. The cells were sampled periodically to measure the activity of an enzyme called reverse transcriptase, which is essential for HIV replication. After seven days, the team found that all three compounds had successfully weakened HIV replication.
“Our study suggests that the body’s own natural defenses can be made more powerful to fight some of the worst symptoms of HIV,” Yuri Persidsky, one of the study’s authors, said. He also noted that stimulating CB2 receptors in white blood cells could produce similar benefits against other viral infections.