(CN) – For as long as modern medicine has treated infections with antibiotics, it has been entangled in an arms race against antibiotic resistant bacteria. Now scientists are considering a new weapon against these so-called superbugs: marijuana.
An Australian researcher presented work Sunday at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology assessing anti-bacterial properties in cannabidiol, or CBD, a non-psychoactive compound naturally derived from marijuana. Researchers believe CBD could be used to treat common strains of Staphyloccocus aureus and Streptococcus pneumonia that are resistant to many drugs currently on the market.
In addition to expanding the number of known bacteria CBD can kill, Mark Blaskovich, senior research chemist at the University of Queensland’s Institute for Molecular Bioscience’s Center for Superbug Solutions tested how long CBD’s effectiveness lasted against superbugs, finding that many bacteria were slow or unable to adapt new resistance—a phenomena that requires further research to understand.
“We don’t know how it works and that’s the interesting thing that we need to do further investigations into. It might be unique mechanism of action or it might be one that is used by other antibiotics and we just haven’t identified it,” Blaskovich said in an interview.
“Given cannabidiol’s documented anti-inflammatory effects, existing safety data in humans, and potential for varied delivery routes, it is a promising new antibiotic worth further investigation,” Blaskovich said. “The combination of inherent antimicrobial activity and potential to reduce damage caused by the inflammatory response to infections is particularly attractive.”
Synthetic CBD was used in the lab since plant extracts often contain “impurities that may confound biological testing results.”
The university collaborated with Botanix Pharmaceuticals, “an early stage drug discovery company”. Initially Botanix was interested in using CBD to treat skin conditions, like acne and psoriasis, which are often associated with a bacterial infection.
“We have generated new data supporting our potential to produce the world’s first non-resistance forming antibiotic against superbugs,” said Botanix Executive Director Matt Callahan in a statement.
Although deaths caused by antibiotic resistance are difficult to track, researchers estimate tens of thousands of deaths could be prevented with better antibiotics, treating a range of diseases from pulmonary infection to tuberculosis.
“Any promotion of novel anti-microbials is a good thing right now. We have to keep hounding industry that this is an area that is going to be vital to human health,” said Margaret Riley, a microbial ecologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst whose work focuses on antimicrobial drug discovery.
While researchers have been aware of CBD’s antibacterial properties for decades, the fact that the U.S. government considers it a Schedule I banned substance with “no currently accepted medical treatment use,” has made it difficult to study. Like the U.S., marijuana exists in a legal grey area in Australia.
“Right now the weather’s changing in the political environment and people are starting to recognize several things: one that pot should be legalized so more scientists will be able to study it without a special permit, and second there’s increasing awareness that anti-biotic resistance is a real challenge,” Riley added.
The U.S. Federal Drug Administration approved research looking at using cannabis to treat epilepsy. As more products enter development, Blaskovich warns people against self-medicating especially where serious infections are concerned.
“This is a limited data,” Blaskovich warned. “There’s no evidence yet that it works in humans and particularly for serious infections that are systemic or internal as opposed to things on the skin.”