Cannabidiol, or CBD, may help reduce the cytokine storm and excessive lung inflammation that is killing many patients with COVID-19, researchers say researchers at the Dental College of Georgia and Medical College of Georgia.

While more work, including clinical trials to determine optimal dosage and timing, is needed before CBD becomes part of the treatment for COVID-19, the early evidence could help patients showing signs of respiratory distress avoid extreme interventions like mechanical ventilation as well as death from acute respiratory distress syndrome.

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Representational Image of Coronavirus  Pixabay

"ARDS is a major killer in severe cases of some respiratory viral infections, including severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and we have an urgent need for better intervention and treatment strategies," says Babak Baban, immunologist at DCG and corresponding author of the study published in the journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research.

The new laboratory study indicates pure CBD can help the lungs recover from the overwhelming inflammation, or cytokine storm, caused by the COVID-19 virus, and restore healthier oxygen levels in the body, said co-author Jack Yu, physician-scientist at MCG.

CBD can fight ARDS

Their CBD findings were enabled by their additional finding of a safe and relatively inexpensive model to duplicate the lung damage caused by ARDS, they say. As the novel coronavirus produced classic symptoms of ARDS like the overwhelming, destructive immune response, then CBD significantly downregulated them like inflammation-promoting cytokines as it improved oxygen levels in the blood and enabled the lungs to recover from the structural damage.

A major problem with SARS-CoV-2 is instead of just killing the virus, the over-the-top immune response can quickly disable the lungs, transforming them to a place where virus is replicated, rather than a place that makes oxygen available for our bodies and eliminates potentially harmful gases like carbon dioxide.

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Mechanical ventilators can take over these vital functions for a while, and enable critically ill people to use less energy to just breathe and have more energy to fight infection, while ideally the lungs recover from the assault. However evidence suggests 30-50% of patients who get to the point of mechanical ventilation, don't survive.

Lung damage can be reversed

In fact, both clinical symptoms and physical lung changes resulting from ARDS were reversed with CBD treatment, they say. "The natural instinct of the virus is to make more of itself," Baban says. "It weaves with our DNA to make the cell produce food and everything it needs."

Viruses also tend to have a tissue or tissues they prefer -- some can and do go anywhere -- and for SARS-CoV-2, the lungs are high on the list, he says. The fact that the coronaviruses are literally big and have the largest known viral RNA genome make such a vigorous cytokine and immune response both plausible and probable, adds Baban.

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CBD is available without a prescription, and is used to treat problems like seizures as well as Parkinson's, Crohn's and other conditions where pain and/or inflammation are a major factor. It's derived from the hemp and cannabis plant, which are essentially the same although hemp has a much lower concentration of the "high" producing THC. Other investigators have shown the calming effect of CBD, for example, can block IL-6 in other models of inflammatory disease.

Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing are some of the early signs of COVID-19. ARDS is a major cause of death in patients who are critically ill for a variety of reasons, including common sepsis.