The plant species Cannabis sativa has had such an enduring place in human culture and civilization because of the uniqueness of what it has to offer: cannabinoids, like THC and CBD. But what if cannabis weren’t the only pant that could produce those medicinal, enjoyable and increasingly profitable molecules? That’s a question that led a team of Swiss researchers to study the humble bryophyte, better knows as moss. They say they’ve discovered plants that naturally produce a chemical that looks and behaves a lot like tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. In other words, scientists say this moss-like plant mimics THC and could lead to breakthroughs in its medical application.
Researchers Say Some Liverwort Plants Make a Chemical Just Like THC
A study that grew out of a simple curiosity has identified an alternative source of THC-like cannabinoids. Liverwort plants are a relative of a family of plants we know as mosses. And one genus of liverwort, Radula, includes a small number of species that produce a compound called perrottetinene. Named after the liverwort species that produces it, Radula perrottetii, perrottetinene, or PET, seems to be very similar to the THC produced by Cannabis sativa.
Researchers first identified the similarities between PET and THC in a 2002 study. Japanese and New Zealand scientists called PET a “new cannabinoid” from the New Zealand liverwort plant Radula marginata, another species that makes it. And they noted specifically that PET was similar to delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the isomer of THC that makes cannabis consumers high.
Picking up from where that 2002 study left off, researchers at the University of Bern in Switzerland published a new study this week that not only confirms the chemical similarities between THC and PET, but also shows that PET produces similar effects on the brains of mammals. In fact, researchers concluded PET and THC share pharmaceutical and structural likeness. And that could make PET a viable alternative to medicinal THC.
THC-Like PET Show Potential as an Alternative Medical Cannabinoid
Cannabis is so culturally, socially and economically important for humans because of the relevance of the chemicals it produces. Now, we know that there are other plants out there with the same potential. And that has researchers buzzing about the possibility of using PET as an alternative medical cannabinoid.
At the University of Bern, lead researcher Jürg Gertsch and his team wanted to see how, specifically, PET compared to THC. So they synthesized PET in their lab, using the natural liverwort compound as a template. Then, using cell preparations from mice brains, they looked to see if PET bound to cell receptors in the endocannabinoid system, just like the cannabinoids in cannabis do. Binding to cell receptors is key, because that’s exactly what allows THC and other cannabinoids to produce their effects. And according to Gertsch and his team, PET binds to the same cell receptors as THC. Furthermore, PET doesn’t bind to any other cell receptors THC doesn’t.
So far so good. Next, researchers looked at what the effects of PET binding to cell receptors were. Were they similar to THC? Researchers focused in on a well-documented therapeutic effect of cannabis: reducing inflammation. Inflammation is an underlying cause and exacerbating factor of a number of diseases, including Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, arthritis and multiple sclerosis. Cannabis’ anti-inflammatory effects are a major part of what make it so valuable as a medicine. And according to this week’s published study, PET did just that. PET reduced the number of molecules associated with nerve inflammation in the brain. And it did so while being less psychoactively potent than THC. Co-author Michael Schafroth says PET is therefore “highly interesting for medicinal applications, as we can expect fewer adverse effects while still having pharmacologically important effects.”
Expect Further Study on PET’s Medicinal Uses
In short, these liverwort plants produce a chemical that provides one of the key medicinal benefits of THC without as much psychoactive potency. Similar to CBD, which offers its own medicinal and therapeutic benefits without any psychoactivity, PET could soon become a viable, naturally-occurring medicine. Researchers at Bern are already calling for further studies of PET’s effects on inflammatory diseases.