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OSU research: Compounds in Cannabis sativa shown to prevent coronavirus infection

hemp fields OSU.jpg
Oregon State University- Global Hemp Innovation Center (GHIC)
Oregon State University Statewide Hemp Specialist Govinda Shrestha inspects fields of hemp.

Research at Oregon State University has resulted in a breakthrough discovery. Compounds in a widely-known plant have the ability to prevent the virus that causes COVID-19 from entering human cells.

At the start of the pandemic, OSU’s Richard van Breeman started looking for natural therapeutic agents that might be useful to combat viral infection. He found them in hemp.

“Cannabidiolic acid is CBDA. Cannabigerolic acid, is CBGA.”

three scientists.jpg
Hannah O'Leary\OSU
Richard van Breeman (center) with lab manager and study co-author Dr. Ruth Muchiri (L) and graduate student Alan Wong.

In a paper published in the Journal of Natural Products, van Breeman and colleagues showed these cannabinoid acids can prevent the very first phase of infection called the cell entry step.

“We proved the principle and established that small molecules can bind to the spike protein and if they bind in the right place, they can prevent the virus from infecting human cells in a manner similar to the way antibodies do,” said van Breeman.

After people get vaccinated, antibodies bind to the surface of a virus and prevent it from infecting human cells. In the case of the novel coronavirus, antibodies recognize the spike protein— the surface protein that gives the coronavirus type-2 its crown-like appearance. Those spikes are how the virus interacts with human cells and enables it to invade and infect.

In a lab at Oregon Health and Science University, van Breeman’s hemp compound hypothesis was tested in live coronavirus cultures. Researchers were able to show that cannabinoid acids— much smaller than human antibodies— effectively bound to very specific regions of the coronavirus spike protein and essentially disabled the virus.

Is a plant-based oral supplement to prevent coronavirus infection on the horizon? The next step is the clinical trials to prove efficacy.

“The good news about the discovery of these hemp compounds is that they’ve been used by people for thousands of years,” said van Breeman. “And in recent times we’ve studied their safety. We know these compounds can be absorbed to reach the bloodstream, if taken orally.”

There has been a vast amount of research already conducted on Cannabis sativa's use and that could possibly shave years off the time needed for van Breeman's clinical trials.

“These cannabinoid acids are abundant in hemp and in many hemp extracts,” van Breemen said. “They are not controlled substances like THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana,” van Breeman makes clear.

The hemp plant produces a large number of cannabinoids. Some cannabis varieties have been developed that produce more THC for marijuana purposes or fiber for rope producing purposes. But all varieties produce cannabinoids. One of the early bio-chemically synthesized forms of cannabinoids are the acids and these are the stars in van Breeman’s research.

Hannah O'Leary\OSU
Richard van Breeman (rear) in his OSU laboratory with Daniel Nosal, PhD

Richard van Breeman said his team’s additional research showed the hemp compounds were equally effective against variants of SARS-CoV-2, including variant B.1.1.7, which was first detected in the United Kingdom, and variant B.1.351, first detected in South Africa. They have yet to test against the delta and Omicron variants but plan to do so. Even as Richard van Breeman and his team find collaborators to begin clinical trials of efficacy in people.

Richard van Breeman is a researcher with Oregon State’s Global Hemp Innovation Center, College of Pharmacy and Linus Pauling Institute.

Van Breemen, Ruth Muchiro of the College of Pharmacy and Linus Pauling Institute and five scientists from OHSU (Timothy Bates, Jules Weinstein, Hans Leier, Scotland Farley and Fikadu Tafesse) also contributed to the cannabinoid study which identified the two cannabinoid acids via a mass spectrometry-based screening technique invented in van Breemen’s laboratory.

Van Breemen’s team screened a range of botanicals used as dietary supplements including red clover, wild yam, hops and three species of licorice.

A link to the latest papers describing both the method and its application to the OSU hemp discovery.
Journal of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry | Vol 33, No 1 (acs.org)

Tiffany joined the KLCC News team in 2007. She studied journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia and has worked in a variety of media including television and daily print news. For KLCC, Tiffany reports on health care, social justice and local/regional news. She has won awards from Oregon Associated Press, PRNDI, and Education Writers Association.