Clinical researchers are only just beginning to understand the role of the endocannabinoid system (ECS) in the body. Initially discovered by Dr. Raphael Mechoulam, the godfather of cannabis science, the ECS is a natural regulatory system that regulates immune responses, sleep, and the nervous system. The ECS also plays a primary role in regulating the gastrointestinal (GI) system in humans and other mammals, and some researchers even believe that endocannabinoid deficiencies could be responsible for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other common GI disorders.
A team of researchers from the University of Texas Southwestern set out to explore the role of endocannabinoids in fighting gastrointestinal infections. For this study, the researchers used mice that had been genetically altered to overproduce a common endocannabinoid called 2-AG, which is also present in humans. Both the genetically altered mice and a group of unaltered mice were exposed to three different bacterial pathogens.
The researchers found that mice with increased 2-AG levels were less susceptible to infections by salmonella, E. coli, or C. rodentium (a pathogen that commonly affects mice). The study authors also performed a second experiment in which they gave unaltered mice a drug that temporarily increases 2-AG levels. Again, the researchers found that endocannabinoids helped the animals fight off intestinal infections.
The researchers believe that they have even discovered the exact means by which endocannabinoids can fight off bacteria. In a third experiment using cells grown in a petri dish, the scientists found that 2-AG is able to block QseC, a specific gene that bacteria use to signal other bacteria to start spreading an infection.
Lead author Vanessa Sperandio, Ph.D believes that this research can help explain exactly how cannabis can help treat IBS and other GI conditions. Several studies have already found that cannabis can lower inflammation and help treat some GI conditions, but these studies did not discover how cannabinoids can achieve this effect. Researchers are also starting to recognize that many of these poorly-understood GI disorders may have a bacterial component, which could potentially be treated by the antibacterial properties of cannabis.
Sperandio said that this study could lead to the creation of new cannabis-based medications that could help people fight off IBS or other long-term GI issues without resorting to antibiotics. Medical cannabis could also potentially be used to stop short-term infections like those caused by E. coli, which cannot be safely treated by antibiotics. Antibacterial cannabis medicines could also work in other parts of the body, as many virulent bacteria also have QseC receptors that can be deactivated by endocannabinoids.
“By harnessing the power of natural compounds produced in the body and in plants,” said Sperandio in a statement, “we may eventually treat infections in a whole new way.”