For years, many Americans with HIV/AIDS have used medical marijuana to relieve some common symptoms associated with the illness such as nausea, vomiting and appetite loss.
Now, a new study published last week in the journal AIDS Researcher and Human Retroviruses found that a daily dosage of marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, may actually fight the HIV/AIDS virus itself.
In this most recent study, the team of researchers from Louisiana State University found that when HIV-infected monkeys were given THC daily during a 17-month time period, the monkeys had less damage in the immune tissue of their gut — an important site of HIV infection — than those given a placebo.
Researchers also reported that they found consuming THC had improved the monkeys immune tissue at a gene level as well, and was in a way, preventing the disease from killing healthy immune cells — a discovery other studies have found as well.
“It adds to the picture, and it builds a little bit more information around the potential mechanisms that might be playing a role in the modulation of the infection,” said Dr. Patricia Molina, head of the school’s physiology department and lead author of the study.
“This study is just more evidence that marijuana can be used to actually fight certain diseases and conditions, rather than merely alleviating the symptoms,” said Morgan Fox, communications manager of the Marijuana Policy Project.
“It is even more evidence of our need for the government to stop punishing patients for using this relatively safe and non-toxic treatment method and stop getting in the way of researchers looking to uncover more potential uses.
“Obviously this particular subject needs to be studied more, but given the number of people with HIV/AIDS and the high cost of most conventional treatments, this area of investigation could have global ramifications in the coming years.”
Attacking the body
Human immunodeficiency virus or HIV is a retrovirus that invades cells in an individual’s human immune system, causing that person to become highly susceptible to contracting infectious diseases. HIV can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS.
For years, it has been reported that the human body can never completely rid itself of HIV, since the disease hides in certain types of cells and reproduces at a slowed rate and leads to chronic inflammation.
Specifically, the virus attacks cells in the human body known as macrophages, which are one of the many types of cells that help the body’s immune response fight infections, and unfortunately, 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.
As HIV spreads, the disease infects and kills immune cells, and the chronic inflammation contributes to the development of many chronic medical illnesses, including cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, osteoporosis and cancer.
Though Molina and her fellow researchers reported in 2011 that HIV-infected monkeys treated with THC had lower levels of viral infection, a spike in immune cells, less weight loss and a better survival rate than those given a placebo, she said she was surprised at the results of this most recent study.
“When we started the study, we thought it was going to increase viral load, we thought it was going to decrease lymphocyte counts much more dramatically, and we did not see that,” Molina said.
“If anything, it looks like there might be some beneficial immunomodulation, particularly at the early stages of infection.”
Medical marijuana and HIV/AIDS
Although it’s not talked about as frequently as other illnesses, it’s estimated that of the more than 1 million Americans currently living with HIV/AIDS, more than 60 percent identify themselves as “medical cannabis users.”
Since the 1990s, a pill form of marijuana has been available for HIV/AIDS patients to help treat symptoms of the disease as well as the side-effects from the antiretroviral medications they have to take.
But as consuming medical marijuana becomes more mainstream, researchers across the U.S. have begun to exploring ways the drug could help those with HIV/AIDS treat more than just their symptoms — especially as study after study finds that cannabis compounds can modify human gene activity.
For example, last May, researchers at Temple University School of Medicine’s Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and Center for Substance Abuse Research reported they may have found a treatment for HIV in THC or CB2-activating compounds. CB2 refers to one of the two receptors that THC binds to. It’s counterpart CB1 is responsible for the high feeling.
During their research, the Temple University researchers said they found that the chemical compound in THC appears to damage and weaken the most common strain of the HIV virus.
Although it’s still early in the research process, Yuri Persidsky, one of the study’s authors, said stimulating CB2 receptors in white blood cells could produce similar benefits against other viral infections.
Molina agreed that CB2 is of interest to many researchers, and explained she and other scientists are “trying to understand the specific receptor-mediated events that result from marijuana. And particularly, to focus on the CB2 receptor.
“There’s quite a bit of interest in trying to understand whether what we see as an immunomodulatory effect is mediated exclusively by the CB2 receptor,” Molina said.
“And if so, could that potentially lead to the development of agonists specific to the receptor that could have the same beneficial effects.”
Though Molina’s research has been hailed as a possible step toward finding a cure for those living with HIV/AIDS, the truth is Molina’s research comes at a time when scientists around the world are performing similar studies and publishing similarly groundbreaking results.
For example, Italian researchers are currently conducting research to determine if marijuana has the ability to modify genes, which could lead to advancements in treating illnesses and medical conditions such as skin disorders, multiple sclerosis and various types of cancer.
When it comes to examining how HIV/AIDS specifically responds to marijuana, research published last November from Harvard University found that cannabinoids can cross the blood-brain barrier and protect the brain from a toxic protein created by the HIV virus, known as Gp120 protein.
Hava Avraham, Ph.D, who co-authored the study, said that these findings were significant since while there are several HIV drugs that can treat symptoms of the disease, “many of these drugs cannot cross the blood-brain barrier and therefore cannot really prevent the damage that HIV causes in the brain.”
However, Avraham explained further research needs to be done, including how to eliminate the effects of CB1, since the high effects may be problematic in clinical settings.