In the history of the world there has never been a more versatile plant than Cannabis sativa. Not even close. With some 25,000 hemp-infused products to its credit, cannabis has no equal. For centuries this verdant little botanical has amazed us with its seemingly limitless utility and is poised too, once again. This time in the health field, as a hopeful new weapon in the war against COVID-19 and its subsequent variants.
For clarification, the sole determining factor classifying Cannabis sativa as Hemp or Marijuana is the percentage of tetrahydrocannibinol (THC) the plant produces. Any level above 0.3% and it is by law, marijuana. Hemp’s THC production level is so low, well, it’s hemp. But hemp doesn’t need THC to perform its magic.
SARS & COVID-19
SARS is a contemptible virus with SARS-CoV-2 being the etiological agent (cause) of COVID-19 (Coronavirus disease-2019) and the ensuing pandemic. An acronym for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, SARS swept over the world in a tsunami of death. Few places on Earth were spared this plague. Closer to home, over 40,000 deaths were reported in Canada and a million in America in just under 3 years.
Doctors, immunologists, researchers and scientists around the globe are searching tirelessly for effective means of combating and treating this deadly disease. And on the west coast of America, a shift in the viral matrix may be occurring.
The Search for a Cure
Inside a research laboratory at Oregon State University, headway is being made in that fight and perhaps, even history. And once again, the irrepressible Hemp plant is on the front-line of a scientific breakthrough. A team of scientists in Oregon have made an astounding discovery. They have identified two acid compounds found in hemp which are proven to prevent the SARS virus from entering the body’s cells.
These findings were recently published in the prestigious Journal of Natural Products. The potential implications of this pioneering discovery are staggering. COVID-19 infects the body by penetrating the epithelial cells in the respiratory tract then spreads to other areas as it replicates. But if it can’t infiltrate the cell, then what’s it do?
I wanted to learn more about this promising new development and reached out to the lead scientist on the project. He was gracious enough to grant an interview. Before we start, here are a few words you should know.
- Ligand – A molecule that binds to another, often larger, molecule.
- Spike protein– In virology, a spike protein is a protein that forms a large structure known as a spike or peplomer that projects from the encased molecule. This structure is used by the SARS virus to penetrate and enter the cell. It’s like a spiky crown. Latin word for crown, corona. As in the Virus.
- Mass Spectrometry– Is an analytical laboratory technique to separate the components of a sample by their mass and electrical charge.
- Assay– Assessment, analysis.
The Scientist Behind the Science
Richard Van Breemen is Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Oregon State’s College of Pharmacy and Linus Pauling Institute Global Hemp Innovation Center in Corvallis, Oregon, and a very busy man. Especially if he has to write down his title very often.
Professor Van Breemen and his team along with scientists from the Oregon Health & Science University are being lauded for their promising new discovery. A discovery that could potentially stop the SARS virus in its tracks.
High Times: Thank you so much Professor, I truly appreciate you taking time from your busy schedule for this interview.
Professor Van Breemen: You’re welcome. I am delighted to speak with you.
Please tell me about your background.
I received my undergraduate degree in chemistry from Oberlin College in 1980 and my Ph.D. in pharmacology in 1985 from the Johns Hopkins University. I joined North Carolina State University and taught chemistry until 1993. Then, I moved to Chicago where I taught medicinal chemistry and pharmacognosy at the University of Illinois College of Pharmacy until 2017 before relocating my laboratory to Oregon State University. I have been Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Oregon State University since 2018 (4½ years).
How long have you studied hemp?
I have studied hemp since the Global Hemp Innovation Center was formed in 2018.
I understand you also invented the mass spectrometry process by which you measured these encouraging results. Correct?
Yes. In 1996, my research group invented pulsed ultrafiltration (PUF) mass spectrometry, which is one of several affinity selection-mass spectrometric approaches for screening mixtures of compounds during the early stages of drug discovery.
In 2008, we invented an even faster affinity selection-mass spectrometry process that uses magnetic microbeads which we call MagMASS for magnetic microbead affinity-selection screening. MagMASS was used for our recent SARS-CoV-2 discovery of cannabinoid acids that prevent viral entry into human cells.
Isn’t working with a live virus dangerous?
Working with live SARS-CoV-2 requires special containment facilities and expertise, and I was fortunate to begin a collaboration in 2020 with Dr. Fikadu Tafesse at Oregon Health & Science University, who had just set up a laboratory for cell culture experiments using live SARS-CoV-2.
When did you first begin your cannabis and COVID project and how long before your trials showed positive results?
Our COVID research began during the spring of 2019. As laboratory director, I focused the affinity selection-mass spectrometry project in my group on the discovery of natural anti-SARS-CoV-2 compounds.
By the summer of 2020, we had a working MagMASS assay targeting the viral spike protein and had obtained the first data indicating that cannabidiolic acid (CBDA), cannabigerolic acid (CBGA), and Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid-A (THCA-A) were spike protein ligands. This research was carried out primarily by Dr. Ruth Muchiri, who is my laboratory manager.
When Dr. Tafessse’s group reported that they observed antiviral effects due to the prevention of cell entry by CBDA and CBGA in late 2020, I knew that our spike protein ligands were active against live virus.
So to be clear, your team’s specific discoveries were…?
Our team discovered that cannabidiolic acid (CBDA) and cannabigerolic acid (CBGA) can bind to the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2. We also discovered that these compounds can block cell entry using live SARS-CoV-2.
And what does that mean in regards to a possible treatment?
That means cell entry inhibitors, like the acids from hemp, could be used to prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection and also to shorten infections by preventing virus particles from infecting human cells.
That’s an extraordinary discovery and a perfect segue. What happens to the virus when it can’t breach the cell?
If the virus cannot enter a cell, it will be recognized as a foreign object and destroyed by the immune system. By blocking cell entry, the virus cannot replicate itself. Without more copies to overwhelm the body’s defenses, the virus particles will be cleared by leukocytes.
Do we know if these virus-fighting cannabis compounds would be safe for people?
According to the Center for Disease Control, there has never been a fatal overdose of cannabis, hemp, or cannabinoids. This includes the cannabidiol drug called Epidiolex that is FDA-approved for the control of certain types of seizures. This level of safety is remarkable and unusual for any drug or natural product.
So what are you looking forward to now?
I am looking forward to expanding our affinity selection-mass spectrometry natural drug discovery program. Nature remains a vast and largely untapped source of new therapeutic agents. Probably less than 10% of natural products have been discovered and tested for therapeutic activity.
By applying our original mass spectrometry approach to natural drug discovery, I hope to make many more contributions to human health in my career while training a new generation of biomedical researchers to carry on the research.