OSU Study Shows Cannabis May Protect Against COVID-19

A new study is showing that cannabis may protect against COVID-19.

According to researchers at Oregon State University (USU), hemp compounds have demonstrated an ability to prevent the virus that causes COVID-19 from entering human cells.

The study results were published this week in the Journal of Natural Products.

OSU Global Hemp Innovation Center researcher Richard van Breeman led the study team, which included scientists from Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU).

Cannabinoid Protection

Researchers discovered that a pair of cannabinoid acids bind to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and block a critical step the virus uses to infect people.

The specific compounds are cannabigerolic acid (CBGA) and cannabidiolic acid (CBDA).

Van Breeman says cannabinoid acids are abundant in hemp and many hemp extracts.

“They are not controlled substances like THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, and have a good safety profile in humans,” says van Breeman. “And our research showed the hemp compounds were equally effective against variants of SARS CoV-2, including variant B.1.1.1. Which was first detected in the United Kingdom, and the variant B.1.351, first detected in South Africa.”

A spike protein is the same drug target upon which COVID-19 shots and antibody therapies focus.

A drug target is a critical molecule in a disease’s process.

Disruption of the critical molecule can inhibit an infection or disease progression.

Van Breeman says any part of the infection and replication cycle is a potential target for antiviral intervention, and the spike protein’s receptor binding to the human cell surface receptor ACE2 is a critical step.

“That means cell entry inhibitors, like the acids from hemp, could be used to prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection and also to shorten infections by preventing virus particles from infecting human cells,” says van Breeman. “They bind to the spike proteins so those proteins can’t bind to the ACE2 enzyme, which is abundant on the outer membrane of endothelial cells in the lungs and other organs.”

Van Breeman says patients with viral infections, like HIV-1 and hepatitis, have benefited from using compounds that block virus-receptor interaction.

Mass Spectroscopy in Research

Along with Ruth Muchiro from the College of Pharmacy and five scientists from OHSU, Van Breeman used a mass spectroscopy technique to identify the two cannabinoid acids.

The team also screened dietary supplement botanicals, including wild yam, hops, red clover, and three licorice species.

A paper in the Journal of the American Society for Mass Spectroscopy previously described tailoring the affinity selection mass spectroscopy method to find drugs that would target the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.

According to researchers, later lab tests showed that CBGA and CBDA prevented the coronavirus spike protein from infecting human epithelial cells and prevented SARS-CoV-2 from entering cells.

Van Breeman says the compounds can be taken orally and have a long history of safe use in humans.

“They have the potential to prevent as well as treat infection by SARS-CoV-2,” says van Breeman. “CBDA and CBGA are produced by the hemp plant as precursors to CBD and CBG, which are familiar to many consumers. However, they are different from the acids and are not contained in hemp products.”

According to van Breeman, affinity selection mass spectroscopy involves incubating a drug target with a mixture of possible things it may bind to, known as ligands, like botanical extracts.

Then, one of several methods is used to filter ligand-receptor complexes from non-binding molecules.

Van Breeman says the team identified several cannabinoid ligands and ranked them to the spike protein by affinity.

Protecting Against Variants

According to van Breeman, CBDA and CBGA were the two cannabinoids with the highest affinities for the spike protein and blocked infection.

“One of the primary concerns in the pandemic is the spread of variants, of which there are many, and B.1.1.7 and B1.351 are among the most widespread and concerning,” says van Breeman. “These variants are well known for evading antibodies against early lineage SARS-CoV-2, which is obviously concerning given that current vaccination strategies rely on the early lineage spike protein as an antigen. Our data show CBDA and CBGA are effective against the two variants we looked at, and we hope that trend will extend to other existing and future variants.”

According to Van Breeman, resistant variants may still emerge amid widespread cannabinoid use, but the combination of CBGA and CBDA treatment with vaccination should make a much more challenging environment for SARS-CoV-2.

Van Breeman says the team’s earlier research reported their discovery of another compound from licorice, licochalcone A.

Locochalcone A also binds to the spike protein, but they did not test it for activity against the live virus due to lack of funding.