The statistics relating to AIDS are extremely grim, with the United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) having described it for years as a veritable ‘epidemic’. According to them, 36.7 million people around the world are currently living with the condition, and an average of 1.8 million are infected annually. Shockingly, around 40% of people with AIDS are unaware of their plight, and lack access to quality testing services. And sadly, at least one million people die from an illness related to AIDS each year.
While weed is usually associated with getting high, thousands of studies have shown the herb’s medicinal qualities. Typically, medical marijuana is used as a means of easing symptoms of conditions, but what if it was actually capable of curing them? Incredibly, there is scientific research data which suggests that this might not be such a stretch of the imagination. So, can marijuana cure AIDS? Read on to find out more.
What is HIV/AIDS?
It is important to remember that AIDS is a ‘phase’ of HIV, so if you contract the latter, you won’t necessarily end up with the former. As the name suggests, HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) is a virus that attacks the immune system, and most pertinently, the body’s T-cells or CD-4 cells. Your T-cells are crucial because they help the body fight disease – when you have HIV, you are more likely to become seriously ill as your body is no longer able to fight back.
Also, it’s important to understand that AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency virus) is the most severe phase of infection – when you reach this stage, your immune system is so badly damaged that serious illnesses, also known as opportunistic infections, are virtually certain. If you don’t get treatment for HIV, it will go through the following three stages:
- Acute HIV Infection
- Clinical Latency
Acute HIV Infection
Somewhere between two and four weeks after infection, most sufferers will have flu-like symptoms including swollen glands, sore throat, headaches, and muscle pain. This is your body’s natural response to the infection, and is sometimes called acute retroviral syndrome (ARS). Studies show that if you receive treatment during this time frame, you will enjoy a significantly reduced likelihood of developing full blown AIDS.
However, at this point your body is already producing large amounts of virus, and it is using T-cells to replicate the virus while destroying healthy cells in the process. By now, your body ‘recovers’ to a phase known as ‘viral set point,’ and your T-cell count may increase slightly. At this stage you must begin antiretroviral therapy (ART) to stand a chance of keeping the virus in check. It is a particularly dangerous period for other people as well, because you are at severe risk of transmitting the virus via body fluids. This means people who you have sex with, or share a needle with, are highly likely to become HIV positive.
Latency refers to a period where the virus is developing without producing symptoms. If you are already on ART, it is possible to keep the virus in the latency stage and prevent it from developing into AIDS. If you are not on ART, however, the latency phase lasts an average of a decade (although this could be much shorter depending on the individual). Ultimately, your T-cell count falls again as the viral load increases.
This is the final stage where you become increasingly vulnerable to life-ending illnesses. While a person with a healthy immune system has a CD4 count between 500 and 1,600 cells per mm3, you are deemed to have AIDS when it falls below 200 cells. If you don’t receive treatment once you have AIDS, average life expectancy is approximately three years. If you develop an opportunistic illness, however, you probably have 12 months to live if you don’t get treatment.
Is There a Cure & What Are the Traditional Treatment Options?
At the time of writing, there is no effective cure for the condition. You can only hope to keep it under control with ART. Antiretrovirals (ARV) are administered to patients with HIV, and they have helped significantly reduce the number of deaths associated with the disease in the last 20 years. It will keep you healthy for a number of years, as it reduces the viral load on your body fluids and blood, and thus helps you steer clear of full-blown AIDS.
You must begin ART as soon as possible after diagnosis, though, because a delay in treatment ensures the virus continues to wreak havoc on your immune system. Unfortunately, ART can cause an array of side effects although advances in medicine mean such adverse reactions are less common and less severe than in the past. Common side effects include:
- Chronic pain
- Dry mouth
- Nausea & vomiting
Apart from the side effects, you also have the twin issues of drug resistance and cost. In some cases, when the virus multiplies in the body, it mutates and produces variations of itself. As a result your body could produce drug-resistant HIV strains, which means ART can fail. In this instance, you need to undergo resistance testing to determine which ARV drugs won’t work against your specific HIV strain.
The Cost of Prolonging Life
The other critical issue is the extremely high cost of ART. A typical example is Intelence, which is a drug designed to help keep HIV in check. 60 capsules (which is a month’s supply), can cost upwards of $1,400, and there is no generic equivalent.
In September 2015, the CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, Martin Shkreli, caused outrage by announcing that the cost of Daraprim would increase from $13.50 a pill to $750. Daraprim treats toxoplasmosis, which is a parasitic infection capable of causing severe symptoms in individuals infected with HIV.
The lack of price control on pharmaceutical drugs means that Big Pharma can pretty much charge what they like for certain products. According to the CDC, in fact, the average lifetime HIV treatment cost is around $367,000 – a financially crippling sum of money. It’s small wonder then that HIV patients are desperately seeking an alternative, and the solution could be something that grows naturally.
Can Marijuana Prevent HIV From Turning Into AIDS?
There is an increasing amount of scientific research which suggests that at the very least, cannabis is an effective way to reduce or eliminate symptoms of HIV/AIDS such as vomiting, nausea, and appetite loss. A study by Woolridge et al. published in April 2005, for instance, looked at the efficacy of weed in treating pain and other symptoms of HIV. Of the 143 patients with HIV who used marijuana:
- 97% reported improved appetite.
- 94% said their muscle pain had eased.
- 93% said their nausea was reduced.
- 93% said their anxiety levels had dwindled.
- 90% reported a reduction in nerve pain.
- 86% reported an improvement in depression symptoms.
Indeed, there is almost a tacit admission that weed can help. After all, Marinol, which is a synthetic version of THC, is normally prescribed for people with HIV before marijuana. However, patients are adamant that “real weed” is vastly superior to Marinol, which has been knwon to cause a myriad of side effects. For example, some patients reported feeling ‘incapacitated’ for hours after consuming just one Marinol pill. In contrast,all it takes is a few puffs from a joint for a person’s appetite to return, with no deleterious side effects.
Arguably the most compelling evidence that weed can act as an effective ART, however, comes from a 2014 study funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institutes of Health. When someone has HIV, the virus attacks the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT) during the early stages of infection. A large portion of the immune system is located in this region, which means the T-cells are badly impacted from the very start of the virus. Researchers now believe that this GALT damage plays a huge role in the speedy progression of the virus.
The 2014 study involved rhesus monkeys that were infected with SIV, which is the simian (primate) version of the virus. The study took place over 17 months, and during that time, the monkeys received regular doses of THC. Overall, the research team found that the active cannabinoid caused a generalized viral load decrease, and the monkeys also benefited from reduced tissue inflammation. And interestingly enough, the THC also seemed to cause an increase in the production of CD4 and CD8 central memory cells in GALT.
What is the Science Behind Suppressing HIV?
A major announcement in the field of HIV/AIDS research was made back in October 2017. Robert Cook stated that he would be leading a 400-person study to look at the impact of cannabis on patients living with HIV. The well-known researcher works out of the University of Florida as a professor of epidemiology, and received $3.2 million in funding for what will ultimately be a 5-year study — the biggest of its kind. As well as analyzing the impact of weed on the brains of HIV patients, he will be trying to find out if “Mary Jane” is capable of actually suppressing the virus.
Professor Cook plans to leave no stone unturned as he will check the specific amount of weed consumed by participants in the study, along with the level of cannabinoids (such as THC and CBD) in each dose. He spoke with VICE in great detail about what he hopes to achieve in his study, and offered some fascinating insights into why marijuana could help keep HIV in check.
According to Cook, he has read data that outlined how much of the virus was in a person’s blood before they were treated with ARV. It showed that individuals who consumed cannabis have less of the virus in their blood as compared to non-users, and he continued by pointing out that THC acts almost exclusively on our CB1 receptors, which are cannabinoid receptors found in all areas of the body. These receptors exist in large number in our immune cells, and of the 110+ cannabinoids that have been identified in weed, the ones that target the CB1 receptors are known to do an excellent job of suppressing inflammation.
Moreover, in August 2017 a study by Henriquez et al. revealed some interesting and exciting findings. According to the research team, an increasing number of HIV patients in America are using cannabinoid-based therapies to try and fight the side effects of HIV and ART. As THC, and several other cannabinoids, are immunosuppressants, it is likely that weed can suppress plasmacytoid dendritic cell (pDC) function during the early stages of the infection by reducing pDC activation. This was a significant finding because prolonged pDC activity has long been linked with the often deadly progression to full blown AIDS.
Yet another study (published in 2008 by Sanchez-Duffhues et al.), found that a weed constituent called Denbinobin slowed the replication of HIV. Overall, results seemed to show that the positive impact of cannabis on HIV is a consequence of interactions between cannabinoids such as THC, and the CB1 and CB2 receptors located on cells such as the macrophages and CD4 cells.
And finally, a study (published in 2012) by the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, showed that stimulation of the CB2 receptors with cannabinoid receptor agonists is capable of blocking the signaling process between the HIV virus and CXCR4, which is one of the principal receptor types that enable HIV to enter and infect a cell. As the disease progresses, the virus uses CXCR4 to speed up the infection process. When the research team stimulated the activation of CB2 receptors with cannabinoid receptor agonists, they hindered the ability of HIV to infect cells that typically use CXCR4, and the result was a reduction of up to 60% in infected cell frequency.
So, Can Marijuana Cure AIDS?
Unfortunately, at the time of writing, there is no evidence that marijuana can out-and-out CURE either HIV or AIDS. However, research is increasingly showing that weed can act as an effective form of ART because it is capable of significantly slowing down the progression of the virus. Perhaps the 5-year Cook study will shed further light on the subject, and maybe even show evidence that cannabis could eliminate the condition entirely.
Until then, however, further research is needed but like we mentioned, it seems as if marijuana is at least capable of replicating the positive effects of ART. Moreover, it doesn’t cause nearly the severe side effects that other traditional HIV medications do, and it is available for a fraction of the cost. Ultimately, if weed is the answer, it must be made legal across the United States to ensure that greedy individuals such as Martin Shkreli are not allowed to profit from human misery.