AUG 17, 2018 4:00 AM PDT

Cannabis Used as an Immunomodulator for AutoImmune Diseases

WRITTEN BY: Amanda Kahl

Autoimmune disease affects individuals by attacking healthy cells. Normally, your immune system sends out antibodies to guard against viruses and germs and does not attack healthy cells. However, with this disease, the antibodies mistake healthy cells with foreign cells, and your body attacks its self. There is no known cure and only limited treatments because the effects of this disease are so vast. Types of autoimmune disease include Multiple Sclerosis (MS), Lupus, Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), Crohn's, and Hashimoto's. Symptoms can range from fatigue, hair loss, redness, swelling, skin rashes, to tingling and numbness in the limbs. 

Scientists hypothesize that THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) found in marijuana has the capacity to affect DNA expression through epigenetic pathways outside of the DNA itself and are looking for a way to test this. Chemical compounds outside DNA collectively are known as epigenomes; these compounds can attach to DNA and alter its function by changing the way cells use the DNA's instructions. They believe THC can be used to suppress the immune response to treat autoimmune disease.

Researchers at the University of South Carolina state that, "Recent findings show THC can change critical molecules of epigenome called histones, leading to suppression of inflammation." They go on to explain that, "The epigenetic influence toward inflammation suppression, marijuana use could be efficacious in the treatment of autoimmune disease such as arthritis, lupus, colitis, MS and the like, in which chronic inflammation plays a central role." 

The current treatment for this disease is an inflammation-reducing medication along with medications to help calm down an overactive immune system. Naproxen and ibuprofen are nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) that can be prescribed but come with a list of side effects like stomach ulcers, high blood pressure, kidney or liver problems, and dizziness and headaches. Along with these drugs, immunosuppressant drugs can also be used to prevent or inhibit immune system activity. The side effects from these medications include increased risk of infections, nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite. 

This is why scientists believe cannabis could be effective as an immunomodulator; it can be used to suppress the immune response but carry fewer side effects with it. Cannabis is known to have anti-inflammatory effects, calming of swelling, ease nausea and headaches, and prevent loss of appetite. The Journal of Biological Chemistry recently published a study exploring how THC influences microRNAs. "The micro-RNAs also called miRNAs are single-stranded, small, non-coding RNAs which play an important role in the regulation of gene expression." Cannabis' ability to alter miRNA expression could be a key step in finding a more suitable treatment. 

The University's School of Medicine's researchers performed a trial on mice. They injected THC into mice and studied their RNA. Results showed that there were 609 miRNAs tested, and out of this number, THC greatly altered 12 of them. Another trial on mice was performed at a Hebrew University. The mice that were treated with CBD in this trial experienced a 50 percent improvement in joint health. This shows the implications for the use of CBD as a treatment for arthritis and other similar joint diseases.

Cannabis is already able to treat achy muscles, fatigue, swelling, anxiety, and more. Scientists are applying these benefits to treating autoimmune disease but also looking out for the impact cannabis could have on suppressing the beneficial inflammation in the body. With more trials and studies being performed applying this drug to the multiple autoimmune diseases, researchers will be able to advance treatments for patients. 

Sources: Science DailyMarijuana Doctors


About the Author
Bachelor's (BA/BS/Other)
Amanda has a Bachelor's in Biological Sciences from the University of Cincinnati. She has a passion for animals, conservation, and environmental sciences. Through her career in science and research, she is able to develop her passion and hopes to pass on to others the joy of learning about science.
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