Scientists Unlock The Potential Of Marijuana’s Pain-Relieving Compounds

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Imagine a pain reliever 30 times stronger at reducing inflammation and pain than Aspirin. 

For the first time, scientists have discovered how the cannabis plant produces molecules that are highly effective at tackling pain. The discovery, which was made by researchers from the University of Guelph, unlocks the potential to create a naturally derived pain treatment that would offer potent relief without the risk of addiction of other painkillers.

“There’s clearly a need to develop alternatives for relief of acute and chronic pain that go beyond opioids,” said Tariq Akhtar, a University of Guelph biology professor and author of the study, in a statement on the newly released research.

The molecules are known as flavonoids and we’ve been aware of their existence since 1985. However, due to strict regulation on cannabis research, work on these molecules has been limited. Now, thanks to Canada’s recent legalization of cannabis, scientists have been able to investigate them unhindered. 

Those pain-relieving molecules in cannabis, called cannflavin A and cannflavin B, cut down on pain by fighting off inflammation but are not psychoactive, in contrast with the chemicals that give marijuana its mind-bending effects, Canadian researchers said in a Tuesday news release on their findings. The study appears in the August edition of the journal Phytochemistry.

“Our objective was to better understand how these molecules are made, which is a relatively straightforward exercise these days,” said Akhtar. “There are many sequenced genomes that are publicly available, including the genome of Cannabis sativa, which can be mined for information. If you know what you’re looking for, one can bring genes to life, so to speak, and piece together how molecules like cannflavins A and B are assembled.”

“Being able to offer a new pain relief option is exciting, and we are proud that our work has the potential to become a new tool in the pain relief arsenal,” said Steven Rothstein, another biology professor at the Ontario university who worked on the study.

Opioids relieve pain by blocking pain signals in the brain, whereas a cannabis-based alternative relying on the cannflavin molecules would target inflammation itself, researchers said.

It’s not just opioids that a cannabis-based painkiller might have the edge over — a natural alternative could also have advantages over ibuprofen with its kidney risks, or acetaminophen with its associated liver problems, the Star reported.

But creating a medicine isn’t without its obstacles.

“The problem with these molecules is they are present in cannabis at such low levels, it’s not feasible to try to engineer the cannabis plant to create more of these substances,” Rothstein said.

As writer Christine Sismondo put it in the Star, “you’d have to consume Cheech and/or Chong levels for it to work as an effective anti-inflammatory.”

The research team has partnered with a Toronto-based company, Anahit International Corp., which has licensed a patent from the University of Guelph to biosynthesize cannflavin A and B outside of the cannabis plant.

“Anahit looks forward to working closely with University of Guelph researchers to develop effective and safe anti-inflammatory medicines from cannabis phytochemicals that would provide an alternative to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs,” said Anahit chief operating officer Darren Carrigan.

“Anahit will commercialize the application of cannflavin A and B to be accessible to consumers through a variety of medical and athletic products such as creams, pills, sports drinks, transdermal patches and other innovative options.”

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