Canadian researchers at the University of Guelph have discovered how the Cannabis sativa plant generates pain-relieving molecules. In the future, the authors of the new study hope that biochemistry could enable a new class of painkillers based on Cannabis which doesn’t share the dangers of opiates.
“There’s clearly a need to develop alternatives for relief of acute and chronic pain that go beyond opioids,” said Prof. Tariq Akhtar, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, co-author of the new study published in the journal Phytochemistry. “These molecules are non-psychoactive and they target the inflammation at the source, making them ideal painkillers.”
How did the team discover cannabis’ potential?
It’s all at the molecular level.
The researchers, led by Professor Tariq Akhtar of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB), working alongside MCB professor Steven Rothstein who combined biochemistry and genomics.
The key molecules themselves, called cannflavin A and cannflavin B, are known as “flavonoids” and were discovered in 1985. ‘ Flavonoids are a type of plant secondary metabolites, a substance necessary for metabolism.
When carefully observed, cannabis’ flavonoids gave anti-inflammatory benefits that were 30 times higher than the regular Aspirin we use over the counter.
As Akhtar said, “Our objective was to better understand how these molecules are made,[…]. If you know what you’re looking for, one can bring genes to life, so to speak, and piece together how molecules like cannflavins A and B are assembled.”
At the moment, those suffering from chronic pain rely heavily on opioids, which block the pain receptors in the brain, and have many side effects and a high chance of addiction.
Rothstein said, “Being able to offer a new pain relief option is exciting, and we are proud that our work has the potential to become a new tool in the pain relief arsenal.”
The team is working hand in hand with Anahit International Group, a Toronto-based company.
The company’s CEO, Darren Carrigan, said: “Anahit looks forward to working closely with University of Guelph researchers to develop effective and safe anti-inflammatory medicines from cannabis phytochemicals that would provide an alternative to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.”
Researchers had already verified that they provided anti-inflammatory benefits which were nearly 30 times more effective gram-for-gram than aspirin.
The research comes amid an opioid crisis in the US which researchers have suggested is being driven partly by the amount of strong painkillers being given, wrongly, to surgery patients.
Donald Trump has declared America’s use of opioids a national public health emergency, calling it “the worst drug crisis in American history”.
The President directed all executive agencies to use every appropriate emergency authority to fight the opioid crisis, which he described as a “worldwide problem” when he came to office.