A chemical found in cannabis could be the most effective way to prevent an opioid overdose, scientists believe.
Scientists at Indiana University have identified 15 chemicals derived from cannabidiol (CBD) — one of the primary compounds in cannabis — that can reverse the deadly impact drugs such as fentanyl can have on the brain.
They found that it was even more effective than Narcan, designed to combat these type of overdoses, at stopping fentanyl in the brain.
The finding could be a breakthrough in the fight against fentanyl, the highly potent drug that kills 1,500 Americans every two weeks.
Use of cannabis has been tied to issues of its own, though. Long-term use has been linked to cognitive and heart issues by previous studies.
Deaths caused by fentanyl in the US surged in the 2010s. At the start of the decade, 2,666 Americans died of a fentanyl overdose. This figure shot up to 19,413 by 2016. Covid made the situation worse, with a record 72,484 deaths recorded in 2021
The fentanyl crisis has helped fuel the steep drop in American life expectancy in recent years. Americans now live 76.4 years on average, down from 78.8 years in 2019. In the UK, which suffered the Covid pandemic just as the US did, but does not suffer a fentanyl crisis, life expectancy slightly increased from 81.3 years in 2019 to 81.52 in 2021.
The two primary components in cannabis are CBD and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
The latter is what causes the well-known ‘high’ feeling a person will often feel while using the drug.
But, CBD has its uses too. It has been linked to relaxing a person’s muscles and helping treat anxiety. There are many skeptics as to whether it is effective, though.
Earlier this year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Epidiolex to treat seizures caused by Lennox-Gastaut syndrome for people two and older.
The drug is the first ever to use a cannabis extract and receive regulatory approval.
Now, the Indiana researchers believe they may have found a second critical use for the drug extract.
The research team, who will present their findings this week at the spring meeting of the American Chemical Society, tested different extracts of CBD’s ability to unbind opioids from the brain’s receptors.
Narcan, which is sold under the brand name Naxalone, works by fighting opioids out of slots in the brain’s receptors for the drug.
This stops the symptoms of an overdose, which often results in death as a person’s breathing slows to a halt — depriving the brain and other vital organs of oxygen.
Fentanyl is stronger than Naxolone, the Indiana researchers explain. Because of this, many people who are overdosing require the medicine to be applied nasally twice.
‘Fentanyl-class compounds account for more than 80% of opioid overdose deaths, and these compounds aren’t going anywhere — it’s just too much of an economic temptation for dealers,’ Dr Alex Straiker, co-principal investigator of the research from the school, said.
‘Given that naloxone is the only drug available to reverse overdoses, I think it makes sense to look at alternatives.’
Dr Michael VanNieuwenhze, who also serves as a co-principal investigator from Indiana, said: ‘Ideally, we would like to discover a more potent replacement for naloxone.
‘However, finding something that works synergistically with it, reducing the amount needed to treat an overdose, would also be a success.’
Using a synthetic opioid named DAMGO, which is only used in available, researchers investigated whether the CBD compounds could break the molecules in fentanyl that binds to the brain.
If the drug can do this, it will likely be able to reverse the symptoms of an overdose.
In a lab, 15 different extracts of CBD were found to be up to the task. Researchers now hope to conduct studies in mice to see which, if any, are effective in overdose prevention.
‘We hope our approach leads to the birth of new therapeutics, which, in the hands of emergency personnel, could save even more lives,’ Taryn Bosquez-Berger, a graduate student at Indiana who is contributing to the research, said.
The biggest drug threat in America at the moment in fentanyl.
It is up to 100 times more potent than morphine, one of the most commonly used pain-reliever in the world.
It takes just a small dose of fentanyl to cause an overdose. Just two milligrams – the equivalent of five grains of salt – is enough to cause death.
Because it is cut into other popular drugs, many people who die of overdoses do not know they are taking fentanyl. Fentanyl has been partially blamed for America’s sharp fall in life-expectancy over the past three years.
‘Substance use is more dangerous than it has ever been, as fentanyl has continued to permeate the illicit drug supply, increasing the risk for overdoses among both people with substance use disorders as well as those who use drugs occasionally,’ Dr Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said last year.
Experts have described the drop in life expectancy from 78.8 in 2019 to 76.4 in 2021 as ‘dramatic’ and ‘substantial’.