The plant that could put an end to conflicts over the legality of marijuana
The use of marijuana for therapeutic purposes is a subject that is more than controversial. On the one hand, its consumption has been shown to provide benefits in the treatment of symptoms such as some pain, muscle cramps, loss of appetite or nausea. However, its psychoactive effects have made it one of the most consumed recreational drugs , especially in young people. This is a great danger, since it can cause psychiatric problems and, in addition, is often considered the prelude to the consumption of other substances even more harmful . Therefore, there is an eternal discussion among those who believe that it should be legalized and those who think that facilitating their access with the excuse of therapeutic use would only increase the cases of addiction, especially among adolescents.
Now, a study published today in Science Advances of the hand of a team of Swiss researchers provides an alternative that, although it is still under study, could solve this conflict, at least in relation to the medicinal use of marijuana . This second option is based on the use of a substance, extracted from a plant similar to moss , which binds to the same receptors as tetrahydrocannabinol, generating very similar therapeutic effects, but without causing so many psychoactive effects .
The complex relationship between man and marijuana
The relationship of the human being with the Cannabis sativa plant is very long, several thousand years old. It is one of the first plants that have been domesticated by man , for having a large number of applications. Initially, it attracted the attention of the first farmers for the nutritional value of their seeds and even for the possibility of extracting fibers that could be used for textile purposes.
Marijuana has been cultivated and consumed for thousands of years
So widespread was its use that those men and women soon discovered that from some parts of the plant-vulgarly known as buds-a substance could be extracted that caused an intense sense of euphoria to the one who took it. For example, there is archaeological evidence that some Asian tribes over 5,000 years old during the funeral rites were locked in tents and burned the marijuana buds , forming something like what is now colloquially known as ” submarine”.
These pleasant effects became increasingly popular. Who would not want to try something like that if, in addition, there were no laws that forbade it or knowledge about its adverse effects? In addition, some of its therapeutic benefits were discovered shortly after , although for thousands of years they were only part of traditional Asian medicine . In fact, it did not spread to the rest of the world until 1839 , after the Irish physician William Brooke O’Shaughnessy proved its use as an anticonvulsant after a trip to India, with such good results that he ended up writing a study on the subject. Its effects seemed more than clear. However, I had no idea what its origin was.
This mystery was resolved more than a century later, in 1964 , when the Israeli chemist Raphael Mechoulam first isolated tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) , responsible for the psychoactive effects of marijuana . It was found that this substance binds to a series of receptors , present in both the brain and immune cells, which are found in both humans and many other animal species. The endocannabinoids also bind to these receptors, substances similar to THC, but generated by our own body. And that is precisely where the therapeutic potential of marijuana is focused, since the activation or inhibition of these cannabinoid receptors intervenes in functions such as pain, sleep, memory or appetite.
The problem is that these powerful psychoactive effects can generate a pleasant sensation, but they can also give rise to many problems, especially psychiatric ones . In addition, the fact that the most common route of administration is smoking adds more damage , for more than obvious reasons .
Credit: University of Bern / Stefan Fischer
Perrottetinene: a safer alternative?
In 1994, the Japanese phytochemical Yoshinori Asakawa discovered the perrottetinene , a substance generated by the liver Radula perrottetii , with a composition very similar to that of THC . The elements that confer its molecular formula are practically the same, although its three-dimensional conformation is different and has a benzyl group more.
During the last years, a team of Swiss scientists, led by Jürg Gertsch , of the Institute of Biochemistry and Molecular Medicine of the University of Bern , and Erick Carreira , of the Chemistry Department of ETH Zürich , has analyzed the potential of this substance as a substitute of the THC . In this way, they have proven that it also binds to cannabinoid receptors , even inhibiting inflammation much more efficiently than THC. In addition, its psychoactive effects are much less intense, so it would not run the risk of being taken as a drug of abuse or cause serious side effects.
This plant only grows in a few areas of Japan, New Zealand and Costa Rica , so it has been necessary to find a way to synthesize the perrottetinene , in order to make it more accessible for testing. To go further will be necessary to design clinical studies, with which to check the effects of this substance. Would it end the eternal dispute over the legalization of marijuana ? It is early to know, but it is certainly a more interesting way of research.