There should be a special ring in journalism hell reserved just for science reporters who skim the abstracts of scientific studies for half-understood findings they can hype as revolutionary breakthroughs. (We’re only guilty of the skimming part.) That just muddies the actual medical debate and further polarizes our world between the cynical and the gullible.
So, let’s put on our skeptic hats and draw a few deep breaths before proceeding.
We know that many HIV/AIDS patients find relief in cannabis. In fact, science tells us that as many as one in three do. Cannabis has been reliably shown to whet the appetite and soothe chronic neuropathic pain. But there is evidence that cannabis can do more than treat the symptoms of HIV; it might actually combat the disease itself.
In a 2014 study, researchers at Louisiana State University Medical Center examined the guts of rhesus monkeys infected with simian immunodeficiancy virus, the monkey version of HIV. (I’m assuming the monkeys were just caught up in the hedonism of the late ‘70s, like the rest of us, and living without any regard for tomorrow.) The gut is a major center of the immune system, which HIV (and SIV) infiltrates and then exploits to reproduce itself.
Coincidentally, the gut is also host to a great abundance of cannabinoid receptor 2 (CB2) cells. Or is it coincidental? Scientists have long speculated that CB2 cells play a role in immunity—but what that role could be is far from clear.
The Louisiana State team treated the monkeys with twice-daily does of THC. According to lead researcher, Dr. Patricia Molina, “we thought it was going to increase viral load.” But the results were quite the opposite. After 17 months of exposure to THC, the monkey’s guts showed lower viral loads, along with increased abundance of CD4 and CD8 cells—which are varieties of immunity-conveying T cells that are typically devastated by HIV. In other words, the CB2 cells stimulated by THC did a kick-ass job keeping SIV at bay.
These findings jibe with an earlier study by the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, which showed that, in tissue samples, CB2 blocks a certain signaling process that HIV uses to infiltrate other cells. But the two studies don’t exactly address each other: The monkey-gut report shows an effect during the early stage of infection, while Mount Sinai’s in vitro tests apply only to the very late stage.