A discovery made by researchers studying Cannabis sativa more than three decades ago is back in the scientific spotlight, thanks to a major breakthrough that could transform how we treat pain. That 1981 discovery, which identified two cannabis plant-specific molecules with pain-relieving properties thirty times stronger than aspirin, has laid dormant for years, mostly because scientists had no idea how cannabis plants made those molecules, let alone how to extract them or synthesize them in large enough quantities. But a pioneering team of researchers in Canada just solved the riddle. And a major Canadian pharmaceutical company is already at work developing pain medicines that take advantage of these specialized chemicals. So what are they?
Cannabis Flavonoids Are Thirty Times More Effective than Aspirin for Pain Relief
If you’re paying attention to the ever-growing enthusiasm over using cannabis for health and wellness, you’ve probably heard of THC and CBD. THC, of course, is the psychoactive cannabinoid that human beings have enjoyed for recreational and therapeutic purposes since antiquity. And CBD, it’s non-psychoactive counterpart, is currently enjoying virtually celebrity status for its ability to help treat everything from seizures to stress. We know and hear a lot about these two cannabinoids because they’re the most abundant in the plant itself, making them the most commercially viable and the easiest for researchers to study.
But back in the early 1980s, plant scientists stumbled upon some chemicals in cannabis that exhibited highly potent anti-inflammatory properties. They weren’t cannabinoids or terpenes, but flavonoids, which are common plant metabolites that give fruits and veggies their color—and likely their health benefits. Over the years, scientists have started attributing the healthy, anti-oxidant and immune system-boosting benefits of fruits and vegetables to flavonoids. But as with all research into cannabis, our knowledge of its specific flavonoids and their vast potential are lagging behind.
In 1981, researchers discovered that C. sativa plants make their own flavonoids that no other plants produce. Then in 1985, researchers noticed that these flavonoids, called Cannflavin A and Cannflavin B blocked the production of two inflammation-inducing molecules in animal cells. That landmark study concluded that cannflavins A and B had anti-inflammatory properties that were thirty times greater than aspirin.
Cannabis Genome Research Unlocks Potential for New Medicines
The problem, however, was that the cannflavins exist in virtually trace amounts in cannabis plants. They’re powerful, but plants don’t produce much of them. And besides, no one knew exactly how C. sativa synthesized these anti-inflammatory cannflavins. And until recently, there wasn’t the interest—or the funding—to find out.
Now, however, thanks to renewed interest in medical cannabis and a deluge of research funding, scientists have solved that piece of the puzzle. Using genome mapping, researchers identified the genes that provide cannabis plants with the instructions for making cannflavins A and B. And we can use those instructions ourselves to synthesize these potent anti-inflammatory molecules.
And that’s exactly what Toronto-based pharmaceutical company Anahit International is working on right now. They’ve licensed the patent to the biosynthetic pathway for cannflavins A and B, and they’re using it to develop natural, pain-relieving medicines. The best part is cannflavins A and B don’t have any of the negative side effects of prescription painkillers like opioids. And they’re even less harmful to the body than over-the-counter pain medications like ibuprofen and acetaminophen.
Unlike other painkillers, cannabis flavonoids target pain-inducing inflammation at the source, rather than blocking pain signals in the brain. The potential for transforming how we treat pain is therefore tremendous. “These molecules are non-psychoactive and they target inflammation at the source, making them ideal painkillers,” said University of Guelph professor of molecular and cellular biology professor Steven Rothstein in a press release. “Being able to offer a new pain relief option is exciting, and we are proud that our work has the potential to become a new tool in the pain relief arsenal.”