Cannabis has a difficult history in terms of its use as a source of medications, mainly due to its content of molecules that are ‘more personally interesting to the individual’ such as THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which is the primary psychoactive compound in the cannabis plant. However, for all plants there are many different bioactive molecules; cannabis is no exception. There are more than 100 different compounds of potential medical interest in cannabis, and recent changes in legislation have opened the door to a proper exploration of this resource.

As for any natural substance that affects the human body, cannabis has in some way evolved to produce molecules that are similar to those already present within our bodies. These plant molecules will link up to the same receptors through which our own molecules use to regulate body functions. In the case of cannabinoids the major actions are through receptors that have in fact become known as ‘cannabinoid receptors’ although they naturally exist to permit the function of the regular control molecules. There are two major types, the CB1 receptors (which are responsible for the psychoactive effects of THC and other cannabinoids), and CB2 receptors, which seem to play a particularly important effect in the immune system and inflammation.

Our research interest focuses on CB2 receptors, which may play an important role in cancer progression and the body’s ability to combat cancer. As well as CB2 receptor pathways, there are indications that molecules from within the cannabis plant may have the further ability to regulate other cellular pathways that are important in cancer and cell regulation, such as the serotonergic and eicosanoid biochemical pathways. For this reason it is important to consider all of the potential constituents of plant extracts, and not just single individual molecules.

We have formed a partnership with an Ontario-based, North American company that has an established presence in the extraction and purification of bioactive compounds from algae and has recently expanded its interests towards a similar approach for cannabis. Algae Dynamics Corp (ADC) has funded a 3-year research program in our laboratory and will provide high-purity extracts from cannabis, enabling us to investigate potential effects of molecules on the CB2 receptors and related pathways in the context of cancer. This partnership will work toward a sound scientific foundation for the use of these natural product extracts in the context of cancer and promote applications that combine the health benefits of algae and cannabis oils.

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