Which active compounds are there in cannabis? How do they affect us? What are their treatment benefits? And how can intelligent development of strains reveal their secrets?
Interview with Prof. Yossi Tam, Director of the Multidisciplinary Center for Cannabinoid Research at the Hebrew University
If THC is the undisputed superstar of the cannabis market, then CBD is a close second. These two molecules focus most of their interest on patients, researchers and entrepreneurs alike, but cannabis has so much more to offer beyond them. We asked Prof. Yossi Tam, Director of the Multidisciplinary Center for Cannabinoid Research at the Hebrew University, what is the current knowledge on the active strains of the plant.
“Cannabinoids are a group of compounds with a similar structure, which are produced in several ways in the plant and act on cannabinoid receptors in the body, such as CB1 and CB2,” explains Prof. Tam, who also serves as the President of the International Cannabinoid Research Society (ICRS). “These are active compounds, in the sense that they create a reaction in the body and affect processes, and therefore may cause a certain sensation or change in activity. There are approximately 140 cannabinoids that have been identified so far in the plant, with THC and CBD being just two of them. We are dealing with compounds such as THCV, CBG, CBN and many others.”
How do they affect us?
“Through the receptors of the endocannabinoids in our body. CB1 is the main one of them and is mainly expressed in the central nervous system and the brain, but in organs such as muscle tissue, heart, liver kidneys and bones as well. In almost every organ. CB2 was discovered shortly afterwards, first in the immune system and then in other organs. And there are additional receptors.”
“We have compounds in our body that are naturally produced and act on these receptors, which are called endocannabinoids. Each cell in the body knows how to produce them. They are secreted from the cell and bind to receptors. Cannabinoids which are derived from cannabis can also bind to the same receptors and produce a variety of effects, depending on the location of the receptor in the tissue. If we look at the brain, activating a receptor in the hypothalamus stimulates appetite. In the brain stem it will lead to a decrease in nausea, blood pressure and pain. In this cerebral cortex there is consciousness and can even cause hallucinations. In the hippocampus it will affect memory. In the cerebellum it will affect memory. In the amygdala it will affect anxiety and may even lead to a traumatic stroke.”
What is the therapeutic value of cannabis?
“We already know from clinical studies that cannabis can help with certain diseases. There are CBD-based products that help reduce a rare type of epilepsy known as Derva Syndrome. Trials are being conducted to treat chronic pain, where cannabis may help reduce the use of opiate painkillers. It relieves nausea and vomiting, and is known to help with sleep disorders. And there are lots of other clinical studies regarding various diseases, from Tourette Syndrome to Multiple Sclerosis.
It sounds as if you know quite a bit.
“Yes and no. We still don’t fully understand the mechanism and therapeutic capacity of all 140 compounds. Parts of them are found in the plant in tiny amounts. In addition, different people will respond to cannabinoids in different ways. It’s about their ‘cannabinoid tone’. It is affected by various factors such as sickness situations, genetics, the amount of receptors and the rate of endocannabinoids in the body – which compete with compounds derived from cannabis for binding to those receptors. and of course, it has the entourage effect.”
What is the “entourage effect”.
“The idea is that a certain effect does not necessarily result from one active compound in the plant, but from a combination of several compounds. They don’t even have to be cannabinoids. Cannabis also has fragrances that affect the aroma, flavonoids that affect the taste, amino acids, proteins, enzymes, sugars, types of alcohol, steroids and close to 20 fatty acids. And that is a very incomplete list. It is possible that at least some of these substances, together or separately, create a therapeutic effect and participate in creating a complete and inclusive experience.”
What does its future hold?
“We aim to reach a place of more precise treatments. If someone suffers from a certain disease, we will know that he is likely to have a certain cannabinoid tone and therefore he will respond to substance A and not substance B. In addition, we will need development processes like those of Canonic in order to cultivate strains with high levels of desirable active compounds so that they can be extracted, researched and made into therapeutic products. For example, there is a cannabinoid called THCV. It is found in small amounts in the plant and its effect is the opposite of that of THC. We learned that this compound can help us develop treatments for metabolic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and fatty liver disease. All of these conditions are characterized by an overactivity of the cannabinoid system in our body, which in turn supports obesity. THCV regulates the system and thus helps lower the patient’s sugar levels and facilitates weight loss. In order for us to further advance the knowledge and understanding of substances like THCV and many others, we need an advanced cultivation process that will develop strains richer in desirable cannabinoids. Part of them are found in the plant in extremely tiny amounts.”
“We have only revealed the tip of the iceberg and there is a lot more to discover”, concludes Prof. Tam. “Cannabis has tremendous potential and it is surprising how little has been done so far. This plant is a pharmacy of medications.”