Mary Jane’s got more goodness in her buds than Cheech or Chong ever imagined. A compound found to ease swelling, pain and inflammation has now been extracted from marijuana. The compound, structurally different from anti-inflammatory medications now on the market, provides new avenues for drug development to help those who suffer from diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease, a new study reports. And unlike THC, the other Cannabis compound with a similar anti-inflammatory outcome, this chemical has nothing to do with feeling high.
“We were stunned to find a totally different compound within the same plant with anti-inflammatory properties,” says Jürg Gertsch, a biologist at the Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences in Zürich, Switzerland, and lead researcher on the study, published June 23 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The team extracted the compound, called beta-caryophyllene, from oily resin in Cannabis sativa L. buds and fed it to mice that were in the midst of an induced immune attack. After the mice ate the extract, their inflammation went down. The team then demonstrated that beta-caryophyllene works by turning on CB2 cannabinoid receptors, molecules that THC acts on and that are also known to reduce swelling, pain and inflammation.
THC works its anti-inflammatory magic by activating both CB2 and CB1 receptor molecules; CB1 receptors are concentrated in the brain and lead to the psychological effects of marijuana. Beta-caryophyllene, however, has little or no effect on CB1 and, therefore, might be used to ease inflammation without the psychological side effects, the authors suggest.
Though its anti-inflammatory effect hadn’t been proven before this study, beta-caryophyllene has previously been isolated from a number of plants and spices including black pepper, oregano and cinnamon. In fact, essential oils from the pepper plant contain more beta-caryophyllene than marijuana plants do. But the amount of pepper one would have to ingest to get the desired benefit might also lead to a nasty stomach ache, Gertsch says.
Doctors often steer away from prescribing herbs and spices to patients because the dose of active ingredients can’t be controlled. “Most physicians don’t want to administer drugs where the amount of the compound goes up and down between 1.5 to 200 milligrams,” says Raphael Mechoulam, a medicinal chemist at HebrewUniversity in Jerusalem whose team identified THC from Cannabis in 1964.
Also, beta-caryophyllene has a limited shelf life once it’s no longer in the living plant. When kept dry, it becomes oxidized and its activity diminishes. The fresher, the better, Gertsch says.
Pharmaceutical companies often make drugs out of purified plant extracts. THC is one active ingredient in Sativex, for example, a drug approved in Canada to treat multiple sclerosis pain.
This study is a testament to the fact that plants contain pharmaceutical cocktails that doctors have yet to dream of, says Ethan Russo, a neurologist and advisor for GW Pharmaceuticals in Vashon, Wash. “While it’s possible to manipulate the molecule, that may not be the best approach. The whole plant extract may be more efficacious,” Russo says.
Many current anti-inflammatory medications, such as Vioxx, come with terrible side effects. But here is a nontoxic compound, already a part of our diet, that appears to do the same job, Russo says. “It always amuses me when nature does it better.”