Support for medicinal marijuana has reached an all-time high in the United States. with over 70 percent of Americans in favor of the use of cannabis to lessen the effects of a large number of chronic medical conditions. People with HIV have long realized that cannabis can ease many HIV-related conditions, including nausea, loss of appetite, depression, weight loss, and neuropathic pain. In addition to treating common symptoms of HIV and side effects of antiretroviral drugs, research indicates that cannabis may help fight HIV itself.
An increasing number of scientific studies, conducted at well-known institutions and published in prominent medical journals, are revealing antiviral effects of cannabis against HIV. These studies detail diverse approaches in measuring favorable effects that cannabis may have in slowing HIV disease progression.
THC in monkeys may lessen HIV’s damage in the gut
During primary infection HIV attacks the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT), where a substantial amount of the immune system is located, hitting CD4 cells hard and early during this process. The initial damage done to GALT is believed to be essential to the progression of HIV disease.
A study funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse and published in AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses in 2014 found that THC, the best-known component of cannabis, had a positive effect on GALT in rhesus monkeys that were infected with SIV, the simian version of HIV, after 17 months of receiving THC. Checking the monkeys five months later, researchers from the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center found that THC produced a generalized decrease in viral load and tissue inflammation and increased production of disease-fighting CD4 and CD8 central memory T cells in GALT.
Blocking HIV’s entry
The effects of cannabis are a result of interactions between cannabinoids and receptors located on many cells, including macrophages (a tissue cell of the immune system) and CD4 cells called cannabinoid receptor 1 (CB1) and cannabinoid receptor 2 (CB2). Researchers at New York City’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine published data in 2012 demonstrating that stimulation of CB2 with compounds called cannabinoid receptor agonists can block the signaling process between HIV and CXCR4, one of the main types of receptors that allow HIV to enter and infect a cell. CXCR4 is used by HIV during advanced disease and allows for faster disease progression. By stimulating activation of CB2 with cannabinoid receptor antagonists, Mount Sinai researchers decreased the ability of HIV to infect cells that utilize CXCR4, reducing the frequency of infected cells by 30 to 60 percent.