First some background: According to the World Health Organization (WHO), heart disease accounts for approximately 12 million deaths worldwide per year; and within the United States, about 2,600 people die per day from its complications. Although heart disease can manifest itself in several forms, the most common and most lethal is coronary artery disease, or atherosclerosis of the heart arteries. Atherosclerosis refers to the thickening of artery walls due to deposits of cholesterol shuttles such as LDL (low-density lipoprotein). Atherosclerosis develops when LDL molecules become oxidized by free oxygen radicals such as superoxide, a by-product of cellular reactions. Oxidized species such as the newly formed LDL cause damage upon contact with the endothelial cells lining arteries. When these cells are damaged, the body’s immune system tries to repair the damage and break down the oxidized LDL, but are unable to, and instead release more reactive oxygen species (ROS) and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α). This starts a vicious cycle leading to greater and greater levels of inflammation, causing the artery to harden, narrow, and eventually be completely blocked. It is known that subtypes of immune system cells such as macrophages and T cells contain cannabinoid receptor 2 (CB2).
The new information: In this experiment, macrophages were isolated from model mice and rats and exposed to oxidized LDL in the presence and absence of a cannabinoid agonist. The levels of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and TNF-α as well as intracellular signaling molecules were then measured. It was found that in the absence of the cannabinoid, the oxidized LDL strongly induced the generation of ROS and TNF-α. However, in the presence of the cannabinoid, the levels of ROS and TNF-α were greatly reduced, which was shown to occur via a mechanism of inhibiting intracellular signaling pathways within the macrophage. When the macrophage was exposed to both cannabinoid and a cannabinoid receptor blocker, the oxidized LDL once again strongly induced the generation of ROS and TNF-α, suggesting that the reduction was a direct product of the cannabinoid.
What this means: By illustrating that cannabinoids effectively reduce the inflammatory response of macrophages to oxidized LDL, this study shows that cannabinoids may be used as a prophylactic measure in preventing coronary artery disease. Additionally, cannabinoids may have therapeutic benefits in the treatment of atherosclerosis, as it would greatly decrease further inflammation and the appearance of plaques. Therefore use of cannabis in patients with coronary artery disease may reduce their risk of heart attack.
Hao, M.X., et al. “The Cannabinoid WIN55, 212-2 Protects Against Oxidized LDL-induced Inflammatory Response in Murine Macrophages.” Journal of Lipid Research. (2010): preprint.