Though even the federal government’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) concedes cannabis has medical potential, there’s no scientific consensus around what marijuana does to the heart.
But at least one researcher is confident some of the compounds in marijuana can help treat heart failure, when the heart loses its ability to pump enough blood to supply the body and brain—and maybe even reverse the disease.
In 2015, Alexander Stokes, a research professor at the University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine, secured a U.S. patent for a unique plant-based therapy for heart disease. As Medical Xpress reported, Stokes believes that by activating a particular receptor, the heart can be made to work harder to pump blood, without eventually failing.
In the past, this receptor has been activated by capsaicin, a component in hot chili peppers (a revelation responsible for headlines suggesting cayenne pepper was suddenly good for the heart).
According to Stokes’s research, cannabis-derived compounds may work just as well as hot peppers. And now, a Nevada-based company called GrowBox Life Sciences is crafting a marijuana-based pharmaceutical drug to do just that.
In theory, it would work like this.
Cannabis’s active compounds are known to activate receptor proteins found throughout the body. One specific receptor, called TRPV1, is a “major cellular receptor involved in the progression to heart failure,” Stokes told Medical Xpress. Figuring out how exactly to regulate what the receptor does is the trick, but so far, experimental treatments derived from whole-plant marijuana have shown the most promise, Stokes said.
There’s a real need for heart disease drugs.
One in three deaths in America can be attributed to heart disease, according to Stokes. Excessive drinking, diet, smoking cigarettes and a sedentary lifestyle are all risk factors—in other words, being American makes you prone to heart disease.
It’s not clear how long it will take GrowBox to develop and test a drug, but it’ll be years. The FDA process is long and deliberate, with multiple studies of increasing size required before a drug can be marketed to the public.
There’s also other discouraging research to overcome. One troubling study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School in Boston, found that marijuana use increases the risk of a heart attack to five times the normal risk rate in the first hour after use.
The risk is short-term—risk returns to normal two hours after use—but is plenty frightening, and won’t be much use in calming down the cannabis users who experience worry or paranoia while high.
Other studies have suggested a link between marijuana use and serious heart conditions, though there’s no consensus on whether cannabis use increases long-term mortality. Whether GrowBox can find a drug and can find the money to test it remains to be seen. But in the meantime, the company is publicly traded.
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