Antibiotic resistant bacteria are one of the biggest threats and challenges in the world of medicine. It’s a constant concern – bacteria evolve to become resistant to existing treatments, forcing researchers to look for new options. Many are pinning their hopes on cannabis.
With restrictions to cannabis research slowly being etched away, we are beginning to find out much more about the fascinating and powerful cannabinoids that are pretty much unique to cannabis. CBD and THC lead the way, but CBC, CBG, CBDV, THCV and more have also been proven to have exciting medical benefits.
History of cannabis as an antibiotic
It’s easy to forget that cannabis was only prohibited well into the 20th century and that the herb had been used for thousands of years by various civilizations to treat a plethora of illnesses. For example, bacteria responsible for tetanus and cholera in the mid-1840s, two life-threatening conditions, was treated with hemp resin.
Researchers initially studied the potential for cannabis to be used as an antibiotic. This is quite remarkable, given that scientists had not even managed to isolate any cannabinoids (CBD, THC etc) at this point. It was proposed that cannabis could be infused into an antiseptic cream, which could treat both the mouth and skin. Unfortunately, the tight restrictions on cannabis research has severely hindered progress.
The growing problem with antibiotic-resistant bacteria
MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), sometimes known as ‘golden staph’, is perhaps the most notorious antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The bacteria have become such a concern that more than $1 billion was allocated in the 2014 US Annual Budget by means of an executive order to come up with a plan to stop the spread of MRSA. This came after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed that there were more than 80,000 cases of MRSA infections in American hospitals in 2011.
In the past, MRSA was easily manageable with penicillin, but the fast-developing bacteria is pretty much always resistant to benzylpenicillin now.
The same goes for several other types of bacteria, such as vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE) and carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), gut bacteria. In worst-case scenarios, such bacteria can be life-threatening.
According to the CDC, bacteria are growing resistant to antibiotics due to “overuse and misuse.” When taken, antibiotics kill off sensitive bacteria but are unable to kill resistant bacteria. These harmful bacteria grow and multiply over time, leading to the build-up in resistance. The CDC recommends that people not treat “colds, flu and most sore throats” with antibiotics, and has also reported that around half of antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary.
The antibiotic properties of cannabis may be explainable by looking at how the plant has evolved. Many have suggested that cannabis plants did not originally have cannabinoids but developed them to warn off external threats. It’s thought that cannabinoids and terpenes, which are found predominantly in the resin, could act as the plant’s immune system.
While the antibiotic effects of cannabis and cannabinoids are far from fully understood, researchers and doctors are very optimistic about the studies carried out on various cannabinoids. It’s thought that cannabinoids work as antimicrobial defenses to fight off bacteria – but no one is quite sure how.
We know that cannabinoids are not typical antibiotics, as they do not interfere with fatty acid synthesis, nor do they affect DNA gyrase. Despite this, cannabinoids are extraordinarily powerful antibiotics compared to most existing options, which indicates they attack bacteria in a targeted manner. Therefore, it’s possible that cannabinoids may be a more long-term antibiotic solution than existing options, which bacteria have evolved to fight off.
The 100-plus cannabinoids found in marijuana may all have some potential as antibiotics, but we haven’t yet established just why this group of compounds is so helpful. Also found in cannabis are terpenes, a set of aroma-giving compounds which may also have some antibacterial effects.
Let’s look more closely at CBD and some other cannabinoids which scientists have found to have powerful antibiotic properties.
CBD has received a lot of media limelight in the past few years, with the non-psychoactive compound showing to be an effective treatment for rare forms of epilepsy, especially in children. But research has shown that CBD can also kill MRSA when administered together with other cannabinoids. Scientists are intrigued as to why CBD is so effective versus the superbug, as it doesn’t seem to work in any of the mechanisms that existing antibiotics – in a nutshell, MRSA was unable to trick CBD into stopping its attack.
Researchers are hopeful that a cannabinoid-based antibiotic could be developed, without having to include the psychoactive cannabinoids THC and THCV. This would be a huge boost for cannabis-derived antibiotics, as the psychoactive effects have stifled the plant’s mainstream progression. Cultivators may be able to grow hemp with miniscule levels of THC, making it perfect for antibiotic use.
Cannabichromene is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid that is perhaps best-known for its neuroprotective and possible neurogenesis properties. However, studies spanning several decades have found the compound to exhibit antibacterial and antifungal properties. CBC may be obscure but occurs in cannabis grown all over the world – it is common in Afghani and Pakistani strains.
The first significant study into CBC came in 1981, when a team of researchers identified the compound to be a strong antibacterial compound with useful antifungal effects. The cannabinoid proved effective against E. coli, Candida albicans and much more. In 2008, a study found that CBC kills MRSA.
In the initial phases of growth, CBG acid is the primary cannabinoid in the cannabis plant. Most of this ultimately change into THC, CBD and other cannabinoids (all of which, at first, are in acidic form). Therefore, cannabigerol (CBG) could be thought of as a stem cell for the other cannabinoids to form from.
CBG also looks to have antibacterial and antifungal effects, according to early research. Scientists think that this non-psychoactive cannabinoid could also be used in a future cannabis antibiotic. CBG also seems to be present in Helichrysumumbraculigerum, a South African flower – this came as a big surprise, with cannabis researchers believing until recently that cannabinoids were only found in cannabis.
We know that cannabinoids transform into other compounds as they age from what happens to CBG. This also happens in the case of THC, which turns into non-psychoactive CBN. Recreational users may bemoan the gradual decline in psychoactivity over time, but the potent antimicrobial effects of CBN makes this a transition of interest for antibiotic researchers.
Much of the modern research into MRSA and cannabis as an antibiotic came in 2008, thanks to Giovanni Appendino and Simon Gibbons. They found that CBN, CBD, CBG and CBC all to have antibiotic properties. They also fleshed out our knowledge on the potential of THC as an antibiotic.
Does THC have antibiotic potential?
Researchers have been trying to answer this question for more than 40 years. Soon after THC was first isolated by Israeli chemist Raphael Mechoulam, attention shifted to the antibiotic possibilities of this famous, psychoactive cannabinoid. In 1976, researchers found that a small 1 to 5mg/ml dose of THC was effective against staphylococci and streptococci, two notorious bacteria that cause staph infection and strep. This was a ground-breaking finding, but future studies have told us that THC is not always effective.
Research found that THC could not treat helicobacter pylori and E. coli in the blood, when administered as a solo treatment. Helicobacter pylori can lead to stomach ulcers.
However, not all hope for THC is lost, with 2012 research into the compound’s antibacterial effects showing that it can indeed be effective – to various degrees – against different types of gram-negative bacterium. It now appears that THC is somewhat useful against THC and very effective against Pseudomonas aeruginosa.
How to make the most of CBD and cannabis as an antibiotic?
Experts are still trying to determine how cannabinoids can best be wielded in the fight against bacteria. For some, such as Bacillus subtilis, a full-extract including all cannabinoids and terpenes may be most suitable. However, the psychoactive nature of THC means it isn’t viable for everyone. Therefore, a non-psychoactive cannabis-based antibiotic consisting of CBD, CBC, CBG and CBN for MRSA and similarly life-threatening bacteria may be more suitable.
What does the future hold?
With cannabis becoming more accepted across the world, it feels like only a matter of time before medical experts focus more on the antibiotic properties of cannabinoids. To give an idea of how much research has slowed in recent times, only two new classes of antibiotics have been developed in the past three decades. Between 1940 and 1962, researchers uncovered 20 classes. With bacteria able to evolve so quickly, the lack of new treatments is forcing scientists to look outside the box.
When a society realizes the true value of an antibiotic, it can move very quickly. For example, penicillin was not discovered by Alexander Fleming until 1928, but within 15 years it was available on prescription, before the US war board took up production in 1944. Therefore, it’s very possible that cannabis could quickly become an integral part of our healthcare.
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