AUGUSTA, Ga. — One of COVID-19’s devastating effects is the damage it causes in a patient’s lungs. Part of this has to do with the virus triggering massive inflammation; an overreaction of the immune system researchers call a “cytokine storm.” Now, a study believes a common ingredient in marijuana may hold the key to treating this lung damage from the coronavirus. Researchers at Augusta University say cannabidiol (CBD) can restore the production of a substance which protects the body.
Cannabidiol is the non-psychoactive chemical inside in marijuana, meaning this ingredient doesn’t make you “high.” CBD continues to grow in popularity as more drugs include it to treat conditions like chronic pain and arthritis. Previous studies have shown it may even be helpful in fighting off antibiotic-resistant bacteria and treating brain cancer.
The Georgia team reveals CBD can also stimulate the production of a natural peptide called apelin. This substance is made by cells in the blood, brain, heart, lungs, and fat tissue. Scientists say apelin plays a major role in regulating a person’s blood pressure, while also keeping inflammation down.
In a previous study by the researchers, they found CBD can improve the oxygen levels and cut inflammation in patients dealing with deadly adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). The new report reveals apelin levels plummet when the body is dealing with a viral infection, like coronavirus. Treatment with CBD however, can quickly restore those levels and lung function as well.
“It was dramatic in both directions,” says Dr. Babak Baban in a university release.
“CBD almost brought it back to a normal level,” Dr. Jack Yu adds.
How cannabidiol can help reduce coronavirus damage
The study finds cases of ARDS drop the peptide’s level to almost zero in blood samples. Those levels increased 20 times after treatment with CBD, marking the first connection between the two substances.
Researchers say when a person’s blood pressure is too high, apelin goes to work bringing these levels down by relaxing the cells lining the blood vessels. With viruses, researchers find the body can’t get enough apelin to quiet inflammation.
“Ideally with ARDS it would increase in areas of the lungs where it’s needed to improve blood and oxygen flow to compensate and to protect,” Baban explains.
Study authors find CBD treatments somehow enables apelin production to restart in infected bodies, protecting the lungs and even repairing some of the structural damage viruses like COVID-19 cause. The researchers caution that they don’t know yet if coronavirus, or CBD, have a direct connection to apelin or if the peptide’s production is a side-effect of other body processes going on during an illness.
“It is an association; we don’t know yet about causative, but it is a very good indicator of the disease,” Baban says.
It’s in the genes
Researchers did find that apelin shares many things in common with ACE2, the gene COVID targets in the body. Aside from both being found in the lungs and other organs, apelin and ACE2 both work to control blood pressure. The study adds these two also work together to regulate the cardiovascular system and protect against heart failure, obesity, and hypertension.
COVID, like other illnesses, tries to break up the partnership by grabbing on to ACE2 and hijacking cells. This also increases the blood vessel constrictor angiotensin II.
“Instead of ACE2 helping blood vessels relax, it helps the virus get into the host where it makes more virus instead of helping the lungs relax and do their job,” Yu explains.
The study reveals this drop in ACE2 also leads to less apelin which means the lungs are unprotected from the pandemic. Finding this biomarker allowed the team to start looking at how cannabidiol helps interfere in a virus’s takeover of the cells.
CBD gives apelin its wakeup call
The study examined how apelin levels in mice react after developing COVID-like symptoms. The results show the peptide is severely reduced in those mice compared to uninfected subjects.
Using CBD as a treatment reveals the cannabis compound normalized the immune system’s response to an infection. This is leading the Georgia researchers to believe CBD can act as a natural agonist, a chemical which binds and activates certain responses in the body.
Scientists are also working with synthetic agonists which increase apelin levels. Getting the body to activate more of this peptide may not only help treat critically ill COVID patients, but also help patients with heart disease, and supply more blood, oxygen, and nutrients to babies during pregnancy.
The study appears in the Journal of Cellular and Molecular Medicine.