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Hopeful Studies Show Cannabis May Help Treat Covid-19’s Deadly Cytokine Storms

The silver lining in the Covid-19 clouds is not just the rollout of vaccines across the world, but also new therapeutic benefits that can help those suffering from the virus. Not so surprisingly to researchers deep in the weeds of this sector, cannabis is emerging as a hopeful medicine to combat the respiratory illness associated with Covid-19.

Three new promising studies and potential drug therapies involving cannabinoids are all related to alleviating the so-called cytokine storm cropping up in patients in the severe stages of Covid-19. In some patients, the immune system gets put into overdrive and starts attacking the body itself during these storms. When lung tissue is attacked, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) could result, in which case the patient will need to be placed on a ventilator.

Fighting Covid-19’s Cytokine Storms with CBD

In Ottawa, Tetra Bio-Pharma has developed an injectable synthetic derivative of cannabidiol, or CBD that was used in animal studies in partnership with George Mason University. This cleaner CBD profile, free of THC, “acts on the CB2 receptor, which works like the director that manages all the cytokines and the messengers of our inflammatory process,” says Guy Chamberland, CEO of Tetra Bio-Pharma in an interview, “and what it does is drive down the messaging to tell the system to relax that inflammation.”

He stresses the proposed drug tampers down the cytokine storm effect, but it isn’t a drug to prevent it from happening in the first place. 

Tetra Bio-Pharma was working on this super-strong CBD drug before Covid-19 circulated around the world, Chamberland adds, since ARDS can also strike patients with SARS, MERS and sepsis. 

The FDA is now reviewing their clinical data so the company can get approval to begin human trials. In Canada, contingent to Health Canada’s accelerated review process for Covid-related trials, the company’s drug ARDS-003 will also be evaluated in Covid-19 patients, but Chamberland can’t give a specific timeline on when those trials will take place.

Anti-Inflammatory Potential In Some Cultivars Could Help

Also studying ways to use cannabis to fight against ARDS, Dr. Olga Kovalchuk, a biology professor at the University of Lethbridge, found some cultivars could help decrease the effects of those deadly cytokine storms. 

She and her team studied how various cultivars would influence inflamed human 3D-printed skin tissue. The recently published paper, in the journal Aging, concluded that “out of 7 selected extracts, only 3 performed best, one had no effects at all, and one exerted effects that may in turn appear to be deleterious…”

Dr. Kolachuk notes in an interview that her study didn’t find any direct correlation between CBD and THC levels in relation to how effective some strains were in fighting against cytokine storms. 

Covid-19 patients who suffer from ARDS need to be put on ventilators. (Photo by Mufid Majnun on Unsplash)

“What really matters though is a balance between THC and CBD and the level of terpenes, and we found that terpenes β-caryophyllene and caryophyllene oxide have strong anti-inflammatory potential,” she says.

This kind of cannabis application can be a major game-changer for those suffering from “long COVID,” as Dr. Kovalchuk describes the lingering symptoms of the virus after the patient supposedly recovered from its worse phases.

“These people may be considered low-risk but they may still have problems that boil down to inflammation,” she adds. 

Study Underway In Israel

And in Israel, STERO Biotechs is underway with its human trials to show the efficacy of its CBD-based solution to ARDS. Working with 20 patients now, the study aims to expand and scale the next stage with an additional 40 patients, under FDA clinical trial guidelines and regulations.

Dr. Ira Price, an assistant clinical professor in the division of emergency medicine through the department of internal medicine at McMaster University, is hopeful about these new therapies to combat Covid-19 symptoms, especially since Health Canada seems to be supportive of some of them. 

“While there isn’t enough evidence to say these can be therapeutic for humans, the fact that these trials will take place is exciting,” he says. 

He also supports Dr. Olga Kovalchuk’s research into terpenes. “Yes, terpenes are aromatic hydrocarbons that give cannabis particular odours, but they can also have therapeutic benefits and definitely need to be researched more.”