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September 14, 2008 — A new type of drug could alleviate pain in a similar way to cannabis without affecting the brain, according to a new study.
The research demonstrates for the first time that cannabinoid
receptors called CB2, which can be activated by cannabis use, are
present in human sensory nerves in the peripheral nervous system, but
are not present in a normal human brain.
Drugs which activate the CB2 receptors are able to block pain by
stopping pain signals being transmitted in human sensory nerves,
according to the study, led by researchers from Imperial College London.
Previous studies have mainly focused on the other receptor activated
by cannabis use, known as CB1, which was believed to be the primary
receptor involved in pain relief. However, as CB1 receptors are found
in the brain, taking drugs which activate these receptors can lead to
side-effects, such as drowsiness, dependence and psychosis, and also
The new research indicates that drugs targeting CB2 receptors offer
a new way of treating pain in clinical conditions where there are
currently few effective or safe treatments, such as chronic pain caused
by osteoarthritis and pain from nerve damage. It could also provide an
alternative treatment for acute pain, such as that experienced
following surgical operations.
The new study showed that CB2 receptors work to block pain with a
mechanism similar to the one which opiate receptors use when activated
by the powerful painkilling drug morphine. They hope that drugs which
target CB2 might provide an alternative to morphine, which can have
serious side effects such as dependency, nausea and vomiting.
Praveen Anand, Professor of Clinical Neurology and Principal
Investigator of the study from the Division of Neurosciences and Mental
Health at Imperial College London, said: ”Although cannabis is probably
best known as an illegal recreational drug, people have used it for
medicinal purposes for centuries. Queen Victoria used it in tea to help
with her period pains, and people with a variety of conditions say that
it helps alleviate their symptoms.
“Our new study is very promising because it suggests that we could
alleviate pain by targeting the cannabinoid receptor CB2 without
causing the kinds of side-effects we associate with people using
The researchers reached their conclusions after studying human
sensory nerve cells in culture with CB2 receptor compounds provided by
GlaxoSmithKline, and also injured nerves from patients with chronic
The researchers are now planning to conduct clinical trials of drugs
which target CB2 in patients with chronic pain at Imperial College
Healthcare NHS Trust, which has integrated with Imperial College London
to form the UK's first Academic Health Science Centre.
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