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Cannabis Column | July 31, 2022

The ECS: the new field of science that will change medicine forever

  • Every animal except insects has an ECS, including humans, birds, reptiles, fish, sea urchins, and mussels - and the ECS serves a similar purpose in all animals studied. 
  • The discovery of the ECS has been called “the single most important scientific medical discovery since the recognition of sterile surgical technique.”
  • Of 152 medical schools surveyed, none taught the ECS as a course. And only 13% of medical schools had a course that even mentioned the ECS. 

When scientists studied the first responders to the World Trade Center attack on September 11th, 2001, they wanted to figure out why some responders developed PTSD, while others were resilient. 

Although the study was conducted more than a decade after 9/11, the researchers found something remarkable: first responders with PTSD had significantly lower levels of a specific biomarker in their blood.

This biomarker was 2-Arachidonoylglycerol, or 2-AG for short. 2-AG is an endocannabinoid (eCB), or a molecule produced by your body that attaches to the same receptors as the cannabinoid THC—the chemical in cannabis that gets you “high.” 

Several years later, an emerging body of evidence suggests that a deficit in eCB signaling plays a role in whether a trauma victim develops PTSD or not. These findings add to a growing body of research that suggests a role for eCBs as a clinically important diagnostic marker in the future.

Back in 2019, Peter Grinspoon, MD, a primary care physician and Instructor at Harvard Medical School, described the impact Endocannabinoid System (ECS) science could have on medicine:

“We are truly at the dawn of an age of discovery of the ECS and the development of new medicines that may help alleviate some of the cruelest diseases that people (and animals) suffer from. I am incredibly excited to see what discoveries await us as we untangle the mysteries of the ECS.”

Since then, scientists have uncovered a range of new findings about the ECS that have the potential to revolutionize how we diagnose and treat a wide range of diseases. 

However, we might not see medical innovation any time soon, as researchers are restricted by the legal status of cannabis, cannabis science remains mired in stigma, and future physicians are not learning about the ECS in medical school.

Why aren't doctors taught about the ECS?

David B. Allen, MD, described the discovery of the ECS as “the single most important scientific medical discovery since the recognition of sterile surgical technique,” and stated, “this new field of science will change medicine forever…” 

Dr. Allen is a retired cardiothoracic and vascular surgeon who sponsored a survey of U.S. medical schools to determine whether medical students were learning about the ECS. 

The results of the survey were startling: of the 152 medical schools surveyed, none taught the ECS as a course. And only 13% of medical schools had a course that even mentioned the ECS. 

While those results are disconcerting, the verbal responses that surveyors received from medical schools were even more alarming: 

  • “Are you aware of what type of institution we are? Why would we offer that here?” 
  • “No course would touch upon this topic longer than five minutes.” 
  • “This is a school for people who want to become ‘doctors.’” 

According to Dr. Allen, this is “a clear failure of the medical establishment to overcome political repression of scientific knowledge” and “similar to ignoring a medical field like neuroanatomy.”

How did we get into this dilemma where research indicates that the ECS is “the master control system of virtually all physiology,” but scientists can hardly research it?  

Free the ECS: how cannabis prohibition stifles medical innovation

According to the author of a literature review on the ECS in animals: “For more than 70 years, scientists have been hobbled by the legal and regulatory prohibitions related to research into cannabis and its associated molecules.”

The story of how we got here starts more than 5,000 years ago, when humans began using cannabis medicinally to stimulate appetite, to induce sleep, or for its aphrodisiac effects. Then in the 1930s, Henry J. Anslinger led a campaign to demonize cannabis, which led to the passing of the 1937 Marihuana Tax Act.

However, the pursuit of knowledge wasn’t immediately stifled. In fact, the 1940s were a heyday for cannabis research, with many cannabinoids identified and isolated. But Anslinger’s smear campaign was imprinted on the country’s consciousness, and cannabis became progressively stigmatized and criminalized.  

Then in 1970, with the stroke of a pen, cannabis became a Schedule I narcotic: a drug with high risk of abuse and no medical benefit. With that classification, cannabis research was heavily constrained – and still is today. 

Why ECS science will revolutionize medicine

Recent discoveries have shown that the endocannabinoid system (ECS) plays a critical role in human health and well-being, and links mental and physical processes in remarkable ways.

For example, exercise improves memory in animals and humans, and this improvement is mediated by cannabinoid receptors. That means if you took a drug that stopped eCBs from attaching to their receptors, then exercise would not improve your memory.

Similarly, the “runner’s high” – once thought to be related to endorphins – is also mediated by cannabinoid receptors. If we block opioid receptors in rodents, they still have the “runner’s high.” But if we block cannabinoid receptors, they don’t. 

Early experiments hinted that research into the ECS might have a remarkable impact on how we treat common ailments. For example, in 2001, Raphael Mechoulam’s lab gave 2-AG to mice with brain injuries and found treated-mice had less brain swelling, better clinical recovery, and reduced cell death in the brain compared to controls.  

Despite cannabis research restrictions, scientists have made some remarkable discoveries. One of the most important discoveries is that every animal except insects has an ECS, including birds, reptiles, fish, sea urchins, and mussels. Another is that the ECS serves a similar purpose in all animals studied, from tiny organisms to humans. 

For example, the Hydra vulgaris, which has the simplest nervous system of any known organism, gets the “munchies” if its ECS is stimulated. The same thing happens to us when we use cannabis: cannabinoids stimulate the ECS and give us the “munchies.”

Genetic analyses suggest that the ECS evolved before the divergence of vertebrates and invertebrates and was highly conserved over 300 million years, suggesting “its biological importance.”

Continue reading: Part II: Experts Discuss How ECS Science Will Change Medicine As We Know It

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