Although the era of the “AIDS epidemic” has waned, more than 37 million people worldwide still suffer from human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), with approximately one million dying of AIDS-related illness — the “full blown” form of the disease — annually. Current HIV medications are both expensive and limited in scope — but cannabis may be the key to not only easing the symptoms of HIV but also stopping the spread of the virus in the body.
NIDA Funds New Long-Term Research
To find out, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has awarded a $3.2 million grant to researchers at the University of Florida to fund the most extensive study to date on how medical cannabis affects the symptoms of HIV. The federally funded research is led by University of Florida epidemiologist Dr. Robert Cook whose team will partner with researchers at the University of South Florida and Florida International University to follow 400 HIV patients who have also been cannabis users for at least five years.
The goals of the study are wide-ranging. Researchers hope to learn more about how HIV patients use cannabis to ease symptoms such as pain, sleeplessness, and stress. But the study will also examine biomarkers such as HIV viral suppression, markers of chronic inflammation, and levels of HIV in the blood. Because many HIV patients experience HIV Associated Cognitive Impairment Disorder (HAND), the study will also administer neurocognitive testing to monitor the effects of cannabis on the brains of people with this symptom of HIV.
Florida – An Ideal Research Environment
Florida legalized cannabis for medical purposes on November 8, 2016, with HIV/AIDS listed as a qualifying condition. Florida has the highest rate of new HIV cases in the U.S., and the third highest number of HIV-positive individuals in the country, but the Florida Board of Medicine maintains that evidence remains limited about the effectiveness of cannabis for treating HIV-related symptoms such as lack of appetite and weight loss.
Because of the high concentration of HIV/AIDS patients in Florida, Cook and other researchers on the UF team hope to use the study results to challenge this position and shape public policy on using cannabis to treat HIV/AIDS.
The long-term NIDA/UF study comes in an era of fierce federal opposition to easing current laws on marijuana that place it on the most restrictive schedule of the Controlled Substances Act — a group that includes heroin and LSD. Marijuana’s Schedule I classification limits opportunities for getting federal support for researching its medical applications. In this context, the NIDA study represents a significant step toward finding affordable and effective solutions for treating HIV.
The forthcoming NIDA study is the latest in a series of recent studies focused on whether cannabis could be a potent addition to the current regimen for treating HIV and for preventing its advance to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS.
Cannabis Affects HIV Symptoms and Treatments
Currently, the standard treatment regimen for HIV depends on a class of drugs called antiretrovirals (ARVs). These sophisticated medications are designed to attack the virus as it replicates throughout the tissues of the body. But ARVs also suppress the immune system, leaving HIV patients vulnerable to secondary illnesses such as cancer, pneumonia, or liver failure. And ARVs have no effect on HIV copies in the brain, which can lead to HAND and other cognitive problems.
However, new research reveals that compounds in cannabis, particularly THC (delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol), the ingredient responsible for marijuana’s recreational “high,” may have several effects that make current ARV therapies more successful, and that improve the body’s own ability to fight inflammation and infection.
A recent study reported in the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency reveals that THC might prevent HIV from progressing to AIDS by suppressing certain kinds of cellular activity. That research suggests that HIV patients who use cannabis — either for easing the discomfort of their symptoms or simply for recreation — might also be preventing the development of AIDS.
Along with that research, another study conducted in the private sector by Colorado-based Cannabis Science, in partnership with the biomedical research firm IGXBio Inc., revealed that THC might help HIV drug therapies cross the blood-brain barrier and attack HIV in the brain. That research is leading to new cannabis-based HIV therapies that can target specific areas, such as the brain, where current treatments fall short.
Today, more people are living with HIV/AIDS than ever before, and the search continues for treatments that are not only safe for long-term use but can also improve patients’ quality of life. The upcoming NIDA study hopes to support both goals by studying not only how HIV patients themselves use cannabis to cope with symptoms, but also how cannabis affects the clinical markers for HIV/AIDS.
For decades, people with a wide range of health conditions, including HIV, have turned to marijuana on their own to relieve symptoms such as chronic pain, insomnia, loss of appetite, and stress. And, for many, cannabis provides relief that can’t be obtained from mainstream medications. Now, large-scale studies such as the NIDA-funded research in Florida may reveal how cannabis helps — and how its unique properties can make treatments more effective.