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The jury is still out on "medical marijuana," or the use of marijuana for medical purposes, but the real verdict may be handed down by science rather than a court of law. The Victoria S. and Bradley L. Geist Foundation (administered by the Hawai’i Community Foundation) had earlier awarded a grant to Helen Turner, PhD, Laboratory of Cell Biology and Immunology, the Queen's Center for Biomedical Research, to investigate how cannabinoid compounds affect the immune system. Some of Dr. Turner's findings in the ongoing investigation have recently been published in a paper in the Journal of Immunology, volume 170, issue 10, pages 4953-62.

Cannabinoid compounds are the substances in marijuana which give its users an euphoric effect. However, cannabinoid compounds are also produced by the body naturally as a class of physiological regulators of the nervous and immune systems. The understanding of the molecular basis and role of these internal, or endo-cannabinoids, are equally important to Dr. Turner's investigation as the long-term effects on the body's immune system from external, or exo-cannabinoids, found in marijuana.

The viability of medical marijuana will be in question until the side effects are known, like any other drug put on the market. Other issues to be resolved are the down side of abuse and the upside of using marijuana for therapy, if any. For example, while many AIDS patients use marijuana to stimulate the appetite, cannabinoids suppress some immune responses and enhance others, but it's not clear if it has an overall benefit or detriment.

The dark dots in the upper section represent which genes tested have been affected by cannabinoid compounds after 0.5, 3 and 9 hours. The bottom section represents the same data in graph form, showing increased reaction 9 hours after exposure.

Dr. Turner's research has shown that cannabinoids reprogram many genes that are important in immunity. The question is, what are the long-term changes in the immune system? In addition, her group has defined, for the first time, some of the routes used by cannabinoids to transmit information to the immune system. The specifics were reported in the Journal of Immunology paper.

This basic research has implications greater than medical marijuana. Just as the study of opiate abuse led to the discovery of the body's own mood-altering substances, the endorphins, endo-cannabinoids are emerging as potentially important natural regulators of brain and immune system function.

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