There's A New Weapon In The Fight Against HIV: Medical Marijuana

Charlie Sheen just let the world in on his secret personal battle with HIV. Back in the 80's and 90's HIV and AIDS were catching headlines almost daily as the world tried to grapple with the previously unknown disease.

The fever pitch over HIV reached a high when Magic Johnson, one of the NBA's most beloved figures contracted the disease in 1992. Since then, HIV fell into the background as the world moved on to other diseases and issues. "People have become very complacent about HIV because we don't see it like we did in the 80s and early 90s," said Dr. Louis Picker, a professor of pathology and associate director of the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute at Oregon Health & Science University.

Charlie Sheen's announcement brought the disease back front and center. Luckily, for Sheen and other HIV sufferers, marijuana has been discovered as an ally in the fight against the virus.

In 2014, researchers at Louisiana State University discovered daily doses of THC had a number of beneficial effects on animal models with HIV.

Over a 17-month period, THC was given to monkeys infected with HIV. Evidence showed THC reduced damage to the immune tissue of the monkey's stomachs, a critical location of HIV infection. Evidence showed THC could achieve results at the cellular level.

Dr. Patricia Molina, head of Louisiana State's Department of Physiology (and lead author of the study) said, "It adds to the picture and it builds a little bit more information around the potential mechanisms that might be playing a role in the modulation of the infection."

Dr. Patricia Molinavia

HIV spreads by infecting immune cells, and it eventually kills those cells. However, researchers discovered the animals treated with THC had a higher level of immune cells. The findings were consistent with a previous study.

In 2011, Dr. Molina found monkeys treated with THC had reduced levels of viral infection. Her team also noticed an increase in immune cells and less weight loss.

According to Dr. Molina:

"When we started the study, we thought it was going to increase viral load, we thought it was going to decrease lymphocyte counts much more dramatically, and we did not see that. If anything, it looks like there might be some beneficial immunomodulation, particularly at the early stages of infection."

Researchers are trying to understand why marijuana might be an effective tool in fighting HIV and are developing new treatments more specific to HIV's mechanisms.

"I think that there's a lot of interest in trying to understand the specific receptor-mediated events that result from marijuana. And particularly, to focus on the CB2 receptor."