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Posted May 12, 2009

Marijuana chemical may slow multiple sclerosis

 
 

In lieu of curing a debilitating disease, the next best thing scientists can do is slow its progression and create better treatments.

Armed with a $1.5 million National Institutes of Health grant, Temple researchers are studying more effective ways to treat multiple sclerosis. And their research utilizes synthetic cannabinoids based on chemicals derived from the marijuana plant.

“A marijuana plant has about 96 different chemicals in it and you might immediately think about those that cause psychological effects,” says researcher Ron F. Tuma, Stewart professor of physiology and associate professor of neurosurgery. “Instead, we’re focusing on a chemical that doesn’t cause psychoactive effects but does affect the immune system.”

Photo by Virginia Sheaffer/Temple University
Temple researchers Ron F. Tuma and Doina Ganea are studying more effective ways to treat multiple sclerosis using synthetic cannabinoids.
   

Calming the immune system is key to fighting the disease. In multiple sclerosis, or MS, a person’s immune system attacks the central nervous system. Current medications, like corticosteroids, turn off the immune response entirely, leaving an MS sufferer vulnerable to infection.

“MS is a terrible disease and the more rapidly it progresses, the sooner it disables its victims,” says co-researcher Doina Ganea, Earle H. Spaulding chair and professor of microbiology and immunology. “So, if you can slow that down for 10 or 20 years, you can make a significant impact on the patients’ lives.”

Both the marijuana plant and the human body produce cannabinoids, which essentially act through specific receptors on immune cells regulating the immune response. Think of the receptors as “traffic cops” that tell the immune system when to turn on and off, so that the body knows when to fight an infection and when to stand down. But in the case of MS sufferers, those receptors are on alert, and the immune system is in constant attack mode.

Tuma and Ganea theorized they could manipulate a man-made chemical to act as a cannabinoid and control the activation of those immune cells.

Using a compound (O-1996) synthesized by scientists at the Medical College of Virginia and the company Organix, Tuma and Ganea performed animal studies and found that the synthesized chemical affected cannabinoid receptors present primarily on immune cells.

Their early studies showed that the compound had a positive effect on the immune system by calming down the hyperactivity, which significantly reduced damage to the central nervous system. Their findings were published in the March issue of the Journal of Neuroimmune Pharmacology.

But it wasn’t just these two researchers collaborating on this chronic disease. They enlisted the help of fellow researchers in the Center for Substance Abuse and Research (CSAR), including Mary Abood, Ph.D., and Martin Adler, Ph.D., who had already been studying cannabinoids.

“This is a totally new approach to treating this disease, “says Adler, director emeritus and senior advisor for CSAR and Laura H. Carnell professor of pharmacology research. “These cannabinoids hold enormous potential, and that’s encouraging since we’re limited in options when it comes to preventing or reversing MS.”

Adler would know. Not only because he’s a neuropharmacologist, but because members of his family suffer from MS. They are not alone. More than two million people worldwide suffer from the disease, with another two hundred cases diagnosed weekly in this country.

“Our goal is to develop new therapeutic agents in the fight against multiple sclerosis and improve the quality of life for the millions who suffer,” says Tuma.

And both Tuma and Ganea agree that Temple is on the cusp of something big by studying the role of cannabinoids in immune function.

“I know of no other universities in this country that have several principal investigators coming from different directions interested in studying cannabinoids,” says Ganea. “That different expertise is our strength.”

In addition to the four-year NIH grant that begins July 1, the study was funded by a $50,000 seed grant from Temple’s Office of the Provost and a $50,000 bridge grant from the Office for Research and Strategic Initiatives.

<tr><td><span class="content_bold">CONTACT:</span> <span class="byline">Megan Chiplock &lt;chiplock@temple.edu&gt; 215-707-1731<a class="redlinks" href="mailto:"></a></span></td> </tr>
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