Pharma’s Great Green Rush
Cannabinoids – naturally found in cannabis – and the human endocannabinoid system are proving to be an intriguing target for drug discovery. But what is the real value of this ancient medicine?
Stephanie Sutton, James Strachan |
“It is beyond my comprehension that any humane person would withhold such a beneficial substance from people in such great need simply because others use it for different purposes.”
– Steven Gould, American sci-fi author
Cannabis leads a double life. On one hand, it is a recreational drug, the regular use of which has been linked with lower fertility (1), increased risk of psychotic illness (2), and, for heavy adolescent users, impaired intellectual development (3). On the other hand – looking beyond the smoke and the stoners – it has been used medically for thousands of years. Cannabis is one of the 50 fundamental herbs in traditional Chinese medicine, and its use has been traced to ancient Egypt, India, and Greece, among others.
Countries began banning the sale and use of cannabis in the 1900s because of its psychotropic properties but, in recent years, there have been calls to ease regulations as scientific studies delve deeper into the plant and its many chemical compounds – cannabinoids in particular. A big breakthrough in the field was the discovery of the human endocannabinoid system in the 1990s. The endocannabinoid system – in essence, the body’s own cannabinoid system – is believed to be associated with a number of physiological processes, affecting memory, mood, sleep and stress (4). Cannabinoids act directly on the endocannabinoid system, which instantly makes cannabis very intriguing from a drug discovery point of view, especially now that we have a greater understanding of which cannabinoids are responsible for the euphoric high associated with recreational cannabis use and which cannabinoids may offer other health benefits. Some countries have now legalized cannabis for limited medical uses, and academics and commercial companies alike are rushing to uncover the plant’s true therapeutic potential – and value.
Cannabis and cannabinoids (both synthetic and botanical) are being investigated for a variety of indications including pain, Alzheimer’s, cancer, glaucoma, epileptic seizures, diabetes, and mental health, and a small number of medicines, mainly based on synthetic cannabinoids, have already reached the market.
We speak to experts in cannabinoid drug development to take stock of this rapidly growing field.
A Career in Cannabinoids
Smashing the Stigma with Science
A View From the Biosynthetic Bridge
Forming a Society for Cannabinoids
Enhancing Endocannabinoid Signalling
- SS du Plessis, A Agarwal, A Syriac, “Marijuana, phytocannabinoids, the endocannabinoid system, and male fertility,” J. Assist Reprod. Genet., 32, 1575-1588 (2015).
- A Macorni et al., “Meta-analysis of the Association Between the Level of Cannabis Use and Risk of Psychosis”, Schizophr Bull, 42: 1262-9 (2016). PMID: 26884547.
- LM Squeglia, J Jacobus, SF Tapert, “The Influence of Substance Use on Adolescent Brain Development,” Clin. EEG Neurosci., 40, 31-38 (2009).
- U Pegatto et al., “The Emerging Role of the Endocannabinoid System in Endocrine Regulation and Energy Balance,” Endocrine Reviews, 27, 73-100 (2006). PMID: 16306385