Home Pharmacognosy Cannabis vs COVID-19: a match made in Oregon

Cannabis vs COVID-19: a match made in Oregon


In the history of the world there has never been a plant more versatile than Cannabis-sativa. Not even close. With some 25,000 hemp-infused products to its credit, cannabis has no equal. For centuries, this verdant little botany has amazed us with its seemingly limitless usefulness and is once again in balance. This time in health, as a hopeful new weapon in the war against COVID-19 and its subsequent variants.

For precision, the only determining factor classifying Cannabis-sativa like hemp or marijuana is the percentage of tetrahydrocannibinol (THC) produced by the plant. Any level above 0.3% and it’s by law, marijuana. Hemp’s level of THC production is so low, well, it’s hemp. But hemp doesn’t need THC to work its magic.


SARS is a despicable virus, with SARS-CoV-2 being the etiological agent (cause) of COVID-19 (Coronavirus disease-2019) and the ensuing pandemic. Acronym for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, SARS swept the world in a tsunami of death. Few places on Earth have been spared from this scourge. Closer to home, over 40,000 deaths have been reported in Canada and one million in America in just under 3 years.

Doctors, immunologists, researchers and scientists around the world are constantly searching for effective ways to fight and treat this deadly disease. And on the west coast of America, a change in the viral matrix can occur.

The search for a cure

In a research lab at Oregon State University, progress is being made in this fight and perhaps even in history. And once again, the irrepressible Hemp plant is at the forefront of a scientific breakthrough. A team of scientists from Oregon has made a startling discovery. They identified two acidic compounds found in hemp that have been shown to prevent the SARS virus from entering cells in the body.

These findings were recently published in the prestigious Natural Products Journal. The potential implications of this pioneering discovery are staggering. COVID-19 infects the body by entering epithelial cells in the airways, then spreads to other areas as it replicates. But if he can’t infiltrate the cell, then what does he do?

I wanted to know more about this promising new development and contacted the project’s lead scientist. He was kind enough to grant an interview. Before you begin, here are a few words you should know.

  • ligand – A molecule that binds to another molecule, often larger.
  • peak protein– In virology, a spike protein is a protein that forms a large structure called a spike or peplomer that projects from the coated molecule. This structure is used by the SARS virus to penetrate and enter the cell. It’s like a ruffled crown. Latin word for crown, wreath. As in the Virus.
  • Mass spectrometry– Is a laboratory analytical technique for separating the components of a sample by their mass and electrical charge.
  • Test– Balance sheet, analysis.

The scientist behind the science

Richard Van Breemen is a professor of pharmaceutical sciences at Oregon State’s College of Pharmacy and the Linus Pauling Institute Global Hemp Innovation Center in Corvallis, Oregon, and a busy man. Especially if he has to write his title very often.

Professor Van Breemen and his team along with scientists from Oregon Health & Science University are being congratulated on their promising new discovery. A discovery that could potentially stop the SARS virus in its tracks.

High Times: Thank you very much Professor, I really appreciate that you took the time out of your busy schedule for this interview.

Professor Van Breemen: You’re welcome. I am delighted to speak with you.

Please tell me about your background.

I received my undergraduate degree in chemistry from Oberlin College in 1980 and my Ph.D. in Pharmacology in 1985 from Johns Hopkins University. I joined North Carolina State University and taught chemistry until 1993. Then I moved to Chicago where I taught medicinal chemistry and pharmacognosy at the University of Illinois College of Pharmacy until 2017 before move my lab to Oregon State University. I have been a Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences at Oregon State University since 2018 (4½ years).

How long have you been studying hemp?

I have been studying hemp since the creation of the Global Hemp Innovation Center in 2018.

I understand that you also invented the mass spectrometry process by which you measured these encouraging results. To correct?

Yes. In 1996, my research group invented pulsed ultrafiltration (PUF) mass spectrometry, which is one of several affinity selection mass spectrometry approaches for screening mixtures of compounds in the early stages of drug discovery.

In 2008, we invented an even faster affinity selection mass spectrometry method that uses magnetic beads that we call MagMASS for magnetic bead affinity selection screening. MagMASS was used for our recent SARS-CoV-2 discovery of cannabinoid acids that prevent viral entry into human cells.

Isn’t working with a live virus dangerous?

Working with live SARS-CoV-2 requires special containment facilities and expertise, and I was fortunate enough to begin a collaboration in 2020 with Dr. Fikadu Tafesse from Oregon Health & Science University, who had just established a laboratory for cell culture experiments using living cells. SARS-CoV-2.

When did you start your cannabis and COVID project and how long before your trials showed positive results?

Our COVID research began in the spring of 2019. As lab director, I focused my group’s affinity selection-mass spectrometry project on the discovery of natural anti-SARS-CoV-2 compounds.

In the summer of 2020, we had a working MagMASS assay targeting the viral spike protein and obtained the first data indicating that cannabidiolic acid (CBDA), cannabigerolic acid (CBGA), and Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid-A (THCA-A) were spike protein ligands. This research was conducted primarily by Dr. Ruth Muchiri, who is my lab director.

When Dr. Tafessse’s group reported observing antiviral effects due to cell entry prevention by CBDA and CBGA in late 2020, I knew that our breakthrough protein ligands were active against live virus.

So, to be clear, your team’s specific findings were…?

Our team found that cannabidiolic acid (CBDA) and cannabigerolic acid (CBGA) can bind to the spike protein of SARS-CoV-2. We also found that these compounds can block cell entry using live SARS-CoV-2.

And what does this mean in terms of possible treatment?

This means that cell entry inhibitors, such as hemp acids, could be used to prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection and also to shorten infections by preventing virus particles from infecting human cells.

It is an extraordinary discovery and a perfect sequel. What happens to the virus when it fails to enter the cell?

If the virus cannot enter a cell, it will be recognized as a foreign object and destroyed by the immune system. By blocking cell entry, the virus cannot replicate. Without more copies to overwhelm the body’s defenses, the virus particles will be eliminated by leukocytes.

Do we know if these virus-fighting cannabis compounds would be safe for humans?

According to the Center for Disease Control, there has never been a fatal overdose of cannabis, hemp, or cannabinoids. This includes the cannabidiol drug called Epidiolex which is FDA approved for controlling certain types of seizures. This level of safety is remarkable and unusual for any drug or natural product.

So what are you waiting for now?

I look forward to expanding our natural drug discovery program using mass spectrometry and affinity selection. Nature remains a vast and largely untapped source of new therapeutic agents. Probably less than 10% of natural products have been discovered and tested for therapeutic activity.

By applying our original mass spectrometry approach to natural drug discovery, I hope to make many more contributions to human health in my career while training a new generation of biomedical researchers to pursue research.