Can the body’s endocannabinoids fight intestinal infections? This research suggests they can

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A new U.S. mice study offers promise for advancing understanding of how cannabis can help lessen the symptoms of various bowel conditions, insight that could lead to new ways of fighting gastrointestinal (GI) infections.

Published online this month in Cell, the study led by the University of Texas, Southwestern (UTSW) shed light on how the body’s endocannabinoids, which share features with chemicals found in cannabis, “can shut down genes needed for some pathogenic intestinal bacteria to colonize, multiply and cause disease.”

Cannabis and its derivatives have a history of relieving chronic gastrointestinal conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome and inflammatory bowel disease, according to a statement from the UT Southwestern Medical Center. What is not so well-known is whether or not endocannabinoids — which, when not working as intended, can lead to intestinal inflammation and have an impact on gut microbiota — affect susceptibility to pathogenic gastrointestinal infections.

To help answer the question, study leader Vanessa Sperandio, Ph.D. and her colleagues considered mice that had been genetically altered to overproduce endocannabinoid 2-arachidonoyl glycerol (2-AG) in organs — which is also present in humans — including the intestines. These mice and unmodified littermates were then infected with a bacterial pathogen that attacks the colon and causes inflammation and diarrhea.

The altered mice “developed only mild symptoms compared with the more extreme gastrointestinal distress exhibited by their littermates,” the statement notes. Their colons showed far lower inflammation and signs of infection, and they cleared their infection days faster than their littermates.

“Sperandio’s team found that increased levels of 2-AG could also attenuate Salmonella typhimurium infections in mice and impede enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli, a particularly dangerous gastrointestinal bacteria that infects humans,” the statement explains.

Vanessa Sperandio, Ph.D. / Photo: UT Southwestern Medical Center

Following more experiments, the team found that 2-AG had a positive effect on C. rodentiumS. typhimurium and E. coli by blocking a bacterial receptor known as QseC. “Plugging this receptor with 2-AG prevents this virulence program from activating,” explains Sperandio, a professor of microbiology and biochemistry at UTSW, thereby “helping to protect against infection.”

The thought is that cannabis compounds or synthetic derivatives could “eventually help patients kick intestinal bacterial infections without antibiotics,” notes the statement.

But there may be benefits beyond the intestines. Because many virulent bacteria that colonize other areas of the body also have the QseC receptor, Sperandio suggests that the same strategy can be employed to fight a variety of infections.

The research team determined that 2-AG had a positive effect on C. rodentium, S. typhimurium and E. coli. / Photo: nensuria / iStock / Getty Images Plus nensuria / iStock / Getty Images Plus

“By harnessing the power of natural compounds produced in the body and in plants,” she says, “we may eventually treat infections in a whole new way.”

Some researchers believe that endocannabinoid deficiencies could be responsible for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other common GI disorders, according to Merry Jane.

Findings from another mice study published last month in iScience found that THC treatments helped to prevent colon cancer by easing inflammation. Researchers found that mice injected with THC and a cancer-causing chemical had no cancer tumours, faring better than the control group that didn’t get THC.

A recent study found that THC treatments helped to prevent colon cancer by easing inflammation. / Photo: Dr_Microbe / iStock / Getty Images Plus Dr_Microbe / iStock / Getty Images Plus

“The fact that we were able to show that treatment with THC prevents inflammation in the colon and at the same time inhibits the development of colon cancer supports the notion that inflammation and colon cancer are closely linked,” says researcher Prakash Nagarkatti, Ph.D., vice president for research at the University of South Carolina.

Patients with gastrointestinal disorders “frequently report using cannabis therapeutically to address a variety of symptoms, including abdominal pain, abdominal cramping, and diarrhea,” notes information from the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

As for Crohn’s disease, observational trial data reports that whole-plant cannabis therapy is associated with a reduction in the disease “activity and disease-related hospitalizations,” NORML adds.

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