Cannabis could be used to help treat potentially deadly complications with COVID-19, a growing body of research suggests.
Researchers at the University of South Carolina performed a trio of studies on mice which found that THC – the chemical that gives cannabis its mind-altering effect – could help prevent a harmful immune response that causes Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS).
ARDS is one of the most common complications for patients with severe cases of coronavirus. It can be fatal or lead to permanent pulmonary scarring.
The goal of the USC study was to see if THC could block the immune response that leads to ARDS developing by introducing a toxin into the mice that triggers the response.
In dozens of experiments across all three studies, all of the mice that were given THC after the toxin survived, while those that didn’t get the chemical died.
The researchers cautioned that their work is still far from conclusive and stressed that they are not encouraging people to use marijuana to self-medicate for COVID-19.
However, they said the preliminary research showed immense promise of THC as a treatment for severe cases of the virus that has already killed more than 209,000 people in the US and more than one million around the world.
Research from the University of South Carolina suggests that THC – the chemical in cannabis that creates a mind-altering effect – could be used to treat complications in COVID-19 patients
‘The underlying mechanism is your immune system goes haywire and starts destroying your lungs and all your other organs,’ Nagarkatti said of ARDS.
‘It’s like a car where you’re putting on a lot of accelerator, but the brakes aren’t working. Basically what’s going to happen is your car is going to crash because you can’t stop it. And that’s basically what’s happening with ARDS.’
ARDS is a form of lung failure that occurs when small blood vessels in the lungs begin to leak fluid, blocking air from the bloodstream.
It’s been known to strike in COVID-19 patients when their immune systems go into overdrive to fight the virus and begin attacking healthy cells.
The USC studies found that THC, which stands for Tetrahydrocannabinol, helps suppress the body’s immune response while also increasing healthy bacteria in the lungs.
The findings were so promising that the researchers are now looking to begin human trials to further examine the potential effectiveness of the chemical in fighting coronavirus.
But Nagarkatti emphasized that his team’s research in no way advocates for people to use marijuana if they think they have coronavirus.
‘I just want to make sure our research is not interpreted as marijuana is good for COVID 19,’ Nagarkatti said.
‘If you start using THC early on it might worsen the effect because it suppresses the immune system.’
Meanwhile other studies have found evidence of marijuana’s potential effectiveness in treating the virus.
A study by researchers in Israel found that a specific terpene compound in cannabis could also be used to prevent cytokine storm syndrome, an inflammatory response that can lead to fever, fatigue and vomiting in COVID-19 patients.
Early results from that study, which was published in August, found that terpene was twice as effective in suppressing cytokine storms than Dexamethasone, a common corticosteroids treatment for inflammation.
And another study published by Canadian researchers in June found that a specific strain of cannabis could help block the virus from entering the body in the first place.
‘Similar to other respiratory pathogens, SARS-CoV2 is transmitted through respiratory droplets, with potential for aerosol and contact spread. It uses receptor-mediated entry into the human host via angiotensin-converting enzyme II (ACE2) that is expressed in lung tissue, as well as oral and nasal mucosa, kidney, testes, and the gastrointestinal tract,’ the study states.
‘Modulation of ACE2 levels in these gateway tissues may prove a plausible strategy for decreasing disease susceptibility.’
The researchers said that their strain of cannabis targets those ACE2 receptors, potentially blocking the virus from taking hold in the body.
While each of the aforementioned studies are still in their early stages, together they paint a promising picture of marijuana’s role in fighting the global pandemic.