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LANSING, MI. — Parts of the marijuana plant could be a key to treating one of COVID-19’s deadly symptoms. 

The immune system responds when exposed to COVID-19, but sometimes so aggressively it affects lung function and makes it harder to breathe. That’s where a new drug containing cannabinoids, a family of compounds contained in the marijuana plant, comes in. 

Norbert Kaminski, a Michigan State University professor of pharmacology and toxicology, is working with GB Sciences, a biopharmaceutical company, to develop a drug that prevents the lung inflammation that some experience after contracting COVID-19 that can lead to trouble breathing and death. 

“These compounds being tested, we’re looking for which ones can decrease that strong immune response,” Kaminski said. 

GB Sciences and Kaminski were collaborating before the pandemic. Back then, they were looking for mixtures of cannabinoids that would reduce inflammation caused by viruses, including HIV, said GB Sciences Chief Science Officer Andrea Small-Howard.

The research was promising — cannabinoids seem to help the body reduce inflammation. They suspect the compounds can be manipulated to help with COVID-19’s deadly symptom, too.

When the body detects the coronavirus, cells release cytokines, which are small proteins that help the body respond. In some cases, the immune system becomes overactive and an elevated amount of cytokines are rapidly released, causing inflammation. This is known as Cytokine Release Syndrome, which is often associated with severe COVID-19 cases, Kaminski said.

The drug GB Sciences and Kaminski are working to develop would limit the immune system’s response and suppress the lung inflammation, Small-Howard said, without preventing the immune system from fighting the virus. 

They are still searching for the right cannabinoid mixture that would make the drug work. They’ve identified potential mixtures that Kaminski will test at his lab in the MSU Food Safety and Toxicology Building.

To test the formulas, Kaminski extracts white blood cells from the human body, isolates them and mimics how they would respond to the virus, doing it both with and without the presence of the cannabinoid mixtures to see which might be useful.

The new drug could also be used as a therapeutic for cancer treatments and other situations featuring hyper-inflammation, Small-Howard said. 

It’s too early to know whether any of the cannabinoid mixtures will be effective for COVID-19 patients, Kaminski said, but collections of studies and literature show cannabinoids can modulate the immune system. 

If the study is successful, data collected would be included as part of the support needed for an Independent New Drug filing with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Small-Howard said they would hope to quickly check for safety and efficacy, fast-track approvals and make the drug available to help people through and after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The pandemic is still affecting us all,” Small-Howard said. “I think everyone thought once we had a vaccine a switch would flip and we’d no longer be in this nightmare.”

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