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MSU researchers study the potential health benefits of cannabis use

April 20, 2024

From treating HIV to diabetes, researchers at Michigan State are looking into the potential health benefits of cannabis use for a variety of diseases due to the plant’s anti-inflammatory effects.

A notable symptom of HIV is a neurocognitive disorder similar to Alzheimer’s. Pharmacology and toxicology professor Norbert Kaminski’s research looks into the possibility for certain chemicals found in cannabis to delay this mental decline.

The neurodegeneration found in HIV patients is progressed by inflammation, which certain cannabinoids may be able to counteract because of their anti-inflammatory properties, Kaminski said.

In his research, Kaminski has found that HIV patients who do not use cannabis have a high level of monocytes, a type of white blood cell that can cross the blood-brain barrier and cause the destruction of neurons in the brain. Patients who use cannabis have a monocyte level closer to that of individuals who don’t have HIV.

Despite its potential benefits, the Food and Drug Administration is unlikely to approve a drug like cannabis, which has psychoactive effects, for medical use, Kaminski said. Therefore, a main goal of his research is to find a way to separate the chemicals that benefit the patient from those that create a high.

"The long term goal for us, for the research program that I'm leading, is to identify synthetic or man-made cannabinoids that are not psychotropic, or they don't produce the high," Kaminski said. "We would want those molecules to still have the anti-inflammatory activity that we see with cannabis use."

Family medicine professor Omayma Alshaarawy is also researching potential benefits of cannabis on cardiac and metabolic health due to its anti-inflammatory properties. Alshaarawy’s research is striving to confirm the plant’s inflammation suppression in humans, as research has yet to be validated outside of animal models.

One factor Alshaarawy is researching heavily is the effect smoking cannabis has on the user. In animal studies, THC and CBD, chemical compounds found in cannabis, are delivered orally or through an injection, which is not how humans tend to use the drug, she said.

Researching the effect of smoking as a delivery method is especially important as smoking itself causes inflammation, Alshaarawy said.

"If we're talking about inflammation as the basis for cardio metabolic condition, it can actually worsen cardio metabolic condition if we're smoking," Alshaarawy said. "Independent of THC (and) CBD, the smoking itself can generate harmful chemicals."

In general, Alshaarawy said that studying cannabis is necessary as the drug becomes legal in more states across the country. In particular, understanding the most and least harmful ways of using the drug is vital as the population of cannabis users increases.

"I don't believe it's a yes or no question, no, it's harmful or yes, it's beneficial," Alshaarawy said. "I think there's a way in the middle where we can understand more about the beneficial effects of cannabis and cannabinoids, where we understand the harmful effects of cannabis and cannabinoids, and use a strategy that's least harmful and most beneficial."

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