Rambam Researchers: Cannabis May Help Severely Ill COVID-19 Patients
Researchers in the Center for Cannabis Research at Rambam Health Care Campus, led by the center’s Director Dr. Igal Louria-Hayon, hope to study the effects of cannabis use on severely ill COVID-19 patients in clinical trials scheduled to begin in the next few months. Preliminary investigations indicate that several types of cannabis may have the potential to prevent the life-threatening cascade of inflammation in these patients. Information gathered to date indicates that a major cause of death in COVID-19 patients is the storm of “cytokines” released when the body’s immune system recognizes a new and threatening invader. This may result in an out-of-control inflammatory response which worsens the illness and can even lead to death.
Active components in cannabis activate an internal system in the body that has been dubbed the “endocannabinoid system.” Since the body naturally produces and utilizes substances similar in structure to the active components of cannabis, it may also respond broadly to the cannabis plant itself. A Biobank database of COVID-19 patients at Rambam will help facilitate research into the possible therapeutic effects of cannabis in battling the deadly virus.
“Cannabis has known anti-inflammatory properties, and we have been conducting advanced research on the use of cannabis to treat other diseases with widespread inflammatory responses. At the outbreak of the COVID-19 epidemic, we directed our efforts and experience to join the world-wide battle against this epidemic,” said Dr. Louria-Hayon. According to Dr. Louria-Hayon, researchers in the Cannabis Research Center investigated multiple cannabis strains, and they were able to narrow the field to about 15 species strains that appear to have the ability to prevent the intense inflammatory response experienced by some COVID-19 patients. “We detected signs that cannabinoids contribute to the sophisticated fabric network of intercellular communications,” Dr. Louria-Hayon said. “Intercellular communication based on cannabis-like substances also exist in the immune system,” said Dr. Louria-Hayon. “If we understand how cannabinoid components are used in intercellular communication, we can help influence this communication in the event of a disease, to disrupt it or empower the communication to convey desired messages.”
Dr. Louria-Hayon explained that in order to understand the mechanism of the effect of cannabis on COVID-19, researchers are drawing on inflammatory cell samples from COVID-19 patients. “For the first time in Israel, a laboratory experiment has been undertaken to explore the effect of various types of cannabinoids on the white blood cells of COVID-19 patients,” he notes. Each cannabis strain has hundreds of active substances, and Dr. Louria-Hayon stated that they want to examine the receptors to which these substances bond, the cellular messages that are communicated, and the extent to which cannabinoids reduce the inflammatory response. “We believe that we will be able to accelerate the pace of investigation and move more rapidly to clinical applications, due to access to the National Biobank at Rambam,” said Dr. Louria-Hayon.
The purpose of the study is to treat the inflammatory storm as it develops and before the patient’s condition deteriorates and a ventilator is needed. “We hope that by decoding the cannabinoid activity mechanism during inflammatory storms, we can treat COVID-19 patients where conventional drugs have failed,” Dr. Louria-Hayon said. “The uniqueness of our cannabis treatments is based on our understanding of the mechanisms of cannabinoids activity and scientific findings.”
Dr. Shlomit Yehudai-Reshef, Director of the Rambam Medical Research Institute, explains, “We saw the establishment of a Biobank pool for COVID-19 research as essential to securing rapid answers and accelerating critically needed research. Blood samples are the most accessible resource for continuous sampling—to understand biological processes during the disease and to develop vaccines and drugs.”
“At Rambam, dozens of COVID-19 patients have been hospitalized in recent weeks, from whom blood samples were collected for clinical and research purposes”, she said, noting that “despite the complexity and high risk, we found a safe way to separate the white blood cells, including the immune cells from verified patients.”
In the photo: Dr. Igal Louria-Hayon in his laboratory.
Photography courtesy of Rambam Health Care Campus.