New research suggests that THC, the main active ingredient in marijuana, could help prevent the HIV virus from spreading throughout the body. When the study’s authors first presented their “groundbreaking” findings at a conference in 2011, they were excited about the potential implications. But they also knew that, thanks to the U.S. government’s restrictions on research related to marijuana, they probably won’t be able to test it out on humans.
Led by Dr. Patricia Molina, a team of Louisiana State University researchers arrived at their conclusions after studying a group of monkeys infected with an animal form of the HIV virus. They administered a daily dose of cannabis to the primates for 17 months, and eventually saw a dramatic decrease in the damage to the monkeys’ stomach tissue — as well as an increased population of normal cells around that damaged tissue.
Since the stomach is one of the most common areas in the body for HIV to spread, the results signal that cannabis could help prevent HIV from infecting and killing off healthy cells.
“It adds to the picture and it builds a little bit more information around the potential mechanisms that might be playing a role in the modulation of the infection,” Molina explained to Leaf Science.
This isn’t the first study to report a correlation between cannabis and HIV. Last year, a Philadelphia researcher found evidence that THC could help suppress infected cells from entering the brain. Harvard researchers report that cannabis could help protect the brain from a toxic protein created by the HIV virus that often leads to brain injury. According to a 2012 study, cannabis can help fight the HIV virus in patients that are already in advanced stages of AIDS. And several different studies have demonstrated that marijuana can alleviate some of the common side effects, like loss of appetite and pain, that result from HIV drugs.
Nonetheless, Molina knows that it will be virtually impossible to conduct large-scale clinical trials on humans, even though that has the potential to benefit the approximately 1.1 million Americans who are living with HIV.
Since the federal government continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule I drug — the most restrictive of the five categories under the Controlled Substances Act — it’s difficult for scientists to get funding for any research in this area. The government controls access to a small legal supply of marijuana for research purposes, and often refuses to back projects that could lead to important treatments simply because they require cannabis. Researchers have repeatedly complained that drug prohibition stifles scientific innovation.
Even though President Obama has acknowledged that he believes marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol, he still refuses to commit to reclassifying it, ensuring that the federal government will continue treating cannabis as a bigger threat to public health than cocaine and opium.
This isn’t the only area of scientific research that’s hampered by outside influences. There’s also been a dearth of federal studies into gun violence, thanks to the National Rifle Association’s successful efforts to strip funding from the Centers for Disease Control’s gun research programs. Some scientists who want to study the effects of gun policy have been forced to resort to crowdfunding to get their projects off the ground. Unlike marijuana, however, the White House has publicly committed to working to undo these restrictions.