In many ways, without AIDS, there would be no medical marijuana. But there could be a twist, according to new research: With medical marijuana (or synthetic marijuana-like compounds), there could be fewer cases of AIDS.
Researchers believe there's a link between cannabis use -- or at least drugs that share an active ingredient with marijuana -- and the body's ability to withstand or fight off HIV infection. According to a study led by researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, when cannabinoid receptors are activated in the body's immune cells, those cells are more likely to withstand infection from the HIV virus.
In other words, pot not only helps AIDS patients survive by allowing them to eat and sleep and otherwise counter the wasting effects of the disease, it might actually fight the disease itself, according to the study published in the Public Library of Science's online journal.
Like it or not, your body is built to react to marijuana: Humans have a pathway of receptors in their bodies called the endocannabinoid system. When activated, this network of lipids within cell membranes act as neuromodulators, and allows the body to process sensations like pain and appetite, and also affects motor learning and "synaptic plasticity" (how your brain works, yo). Natural cannabinoids produced by the body as well as plant-based cannabinoids activate this system.
Complicated? Sort of. The primary thing to know is that there are two main cannabinoid receptors in the body: CR1, which is mostly in the brain, and CR2, which is found in the immune system and central nervous system.
We won't get into too much detail -- mostly because we and our history degree don't really understand it -- but in the late stages of HIV/AIDS, the virus attacks T-cells (white blood cells, the body's defenders against disease) with the surface protein CD4. The researchers found that when the CR2 receptors on the T-cells with CD4 are activated, those cells are more able to fight off infection from HIV.
If you know someone who is HIV-positive, then you already know all about "T-cell counts" -- a higher T-cell count means the patient's immune system is doing well. Remember that AIDS casualties die not from AIDS itself, but from other diseases made deadly by a compromised immune system. So this is interesting research, indeed -- and one the study's authors plan to follow up with a study on mice that will be given a drug which activates their CR2 receptors.
"We knew that cannabinoid drugs like marijuana can have a therapeutic
effect in AIDS patients, but did not understand how they influence the
spread of the virus itself," study author Cristina Costantino, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Pharmacology and Systems
Therapeutics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, told India's ZeeNews.
Read the study for yourself. If that's too heavy, try this excellent summation at AIDSMeds.com.
Researchers stopped short at saying that cannabinoids will completely halt AIDS. Mountains of anecdotal evidence from HIV/AIDS patients reveals that marijuana, in plant or other forms, helps. It appears we just never knew exactly how much.
By the by, marijuana is still federally illegal, and the medical marijuana dispensary once operated by ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) was shut down by the federal Justice Department in January.
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