COLUMBIA, S.C. — Top University of South Carolina researchers think the chemical in marijuana that induces a “high” may be effective in treating a potentially lethal coronavirus complication, according to three newly released studies.
The studies, co-published by Prakash Nagarkatti, found THC, the most potent mind-altering chemical in cannabis, can — in mice — prevent a harmful immune response that causes Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) and promote a significant increase in healthy lung bacteria.
The studies, published in Frontiers in Pharmacology, the British Journal of Pharmacology and the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, were conducted by giving mice a toxin that triggered the harmful immune reaction that causes ARDS and then injecting mice with THC, according to the studies’ abstracts.
“The underlying mechanism is your immune system goes haywire and starts destroying your lungs and all your other organs,” Nagarkatti said of ARDS.
“It’s like a car where you’re putting on a lot of accelerator, but the brakes aren’t working,” Nagarkatti said. “Basically what’s going to happen is your car is going to crash because you can’t stop it. And that’s basically what’s happening with ARDS.”
Over dozens of experiments in the three separate studies, 100% of the mice given THC survived, Nagarkatti told The State.
While the many differences between mice and humans mean lab results in mice don’t always directly translate into real-life results for humans, Nagarkatti was stunned at the effectiveness of how effective THC was in treating ARDS.
There is no FDA-approved drug right now to treat ARDS, Nagarkatti said.
The experiments were so effective, Nagarkatti has recommended health officials begin human trials with THC, he said.
However, that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for people to smoke marijuana if they think they have coronavirus, he said. Since THC suppresses the immune response, smoking marijuana recreationally can actually make a coronavirus infection worse.
“I just want to make sure our research is not interpreted as marijuana is good for COVID-19,” Nagarkatti said. “If you start using THC early on it might worsen the effect because it suppresses the immune system.”
In coronavirus cases, Nagarkatti’s research shows THC could be tried —if the drug is approved for human trials —if a patient develops the severe ARDS side effect, but not necessarily all COVID-19 cases.
The studies were produced by USC’s top researchers, two of whom —Prakash Nagarkatti and Mitzki Nagarkatti —are married. Mitzki is chair of the Pathology, Microbiology and Immunology Department and Prakash is USC’s vice president for research, according to USC’s website.
ARDS is a form of lung failure that can occur in COVID-19 patients when small blood vessels in the lung begin to leak fluid, blocking air from entering the bloodstream, according to Johns Hopkins’ website. Those who develop ARDS may require a ventilator.
One of the ways ARDS can occur is when the body’s immune system overreacts to a virus and begins attacking healthy cells in the body, according to ScienceDaily.
ARDS has an average mortality rate of 43%, according to a 2020 study from the National Institutes of Health. In cases where ARDS is not fatal, it can cause long-term scarring in lung tissue among survivors, according to Johns Hopkins.
This is not the first study that shows chemicals contained in marijuana may be useful in treating COVID 19. A July study from the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University found cannabidiol, or CBD, can reduce the body’s harmful response to coronavirus. CBD, which does not cause a “high,” is already widely available in South Carolina retail stores.
Marijuana legalization group NORML hailed the development as an addition to growing evidence that the chemicals in marijuana may treat illnesses such as COVID-19. However, the group advised caution with these early results and warned of grifters who could seek to exploit marijuana’s positive press.
“The data at this point is preliminary at best, and the public needs to be vigilant against predatory marketers prematurely hailing certain cannabis or CBD-specific products as supposed COVID treatments or cure-alls,” said NORML spokesman Paul Armentano.