In 2018, Dr. Koumpouras joined a multi-site randomized clinical trial that aims to recruit 100 participants to examine whether a drug using a synthetically created cannabinoid molecule that binds preferentially to CB2 receptors (called Lenabasum) can help ease pain and inflammation in patients with lupus. Participants will receive Lenabasum or a placebo for almost three months and will continue to be monitored for pain and inflammation levels, as well as lupus disease activity. The study is ongoing, but Dr. Koumpouras anticipates that it will wrap up by early next year.
This is why he’s exploring a candidate for a new lupus treatment option: a molecule with a cannabinoid template structure that binds to cannabinoid receptors, the same receptors involved in the chemicals found in the marijuana plant.
Lupus affects approximately 240,000 people in the United States, and yet at present doctors neither know the exact cause nor have a cure. Instead, current treatments focus on improving quality of life by controlling symptoms and minimizing flare-ups to reduce risk of organ damage.
What is CBD?
“The landscape for treatment of lupus is a bit bleak,” says Fotios Koumpouras, MD, a rheumatologist and director of the Lupus Program at Yale Medicine. “A multitude of drugs have failed in the last 10 to 15 years. Most of the drugs we use are being repurposed from other conditions and are not unique to lupus. Many of them can’t be used during pregnancy, which is a problem because lupus mostly affects young women. All of these issues create the impetus to find new and more effective therapies.”
Fotios Koumpouras, MD, is researching a synthetically created cannabinoid molecule that binds preferentially to CB2 receptors (called Lenabasum) to see if it can help ease pain and inflammation in patients with lupus.
Dr. Koumpouras learned from a colleague of ajulemic acid, a side-chain analog of Δ8-THC-11-oic acid, which was designed as a potent therapeutic agent free of the psychotropic adverse effects typical of most cannabinoids. This molecule may help relieve pain and reduce inflammation in systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), the most common type of lupus. “Reducing inflammation is crucial for patients with lupus because it is what causes the buildup of scar tissue in vital organs that can eventually lead to their deterioration and malfunction,” he says. This cannabinoid molecule was already in study for other diseases, including systemic sclerosis and dermatomyositis.
From “miracle drug” to medicine?
A lupus diagnosis can be devastating. The disease causes the body’s immune system to attack its own tissues and can affect internal organs—including the brain, heart, and lungs—which can start to deteriorate. Lupus flare-ups can leave patients so fatigued and in pain that they’re unable to do the simplest of things, such as walk, cook, or read. Many can’t go outdoors without layers of sunscreen, because the disease can make them extremely susceptible to sunburn.
His research is one of many new studies at Yale and elsewhere looking at the endocannabinoid system and molecules related to CBD action for use in treating everything from Crohn’s disease to psoriatic arthritis, and he hopes that this new data will be used to help paint a more complete picture about the chemical for future treatment options.
Currently, prescription medication for autoimmune diseases aim to “turn off” the immune system all together. Immunosuppressive drugs are synthetically created antibodies which attack the autoimmune antibodies. Immunosuppressive drugs can create many potential side effects. These medications may make someone more susceptible to infection, and may lead to the development of cancer. According to Dr. Bonni Goldstein, a cannabis friendly doctor in Southern California, many patients who try immunosuppressive medications end up discontinuing them due to unfavorable side effects. In her experience, patients seek holistic treatment options for autoimmune diseases.
While advancements in science have enabled a greater understanding of our health, getting to the root cause of a chronic disease can be challenging. Autoimmune conditions are an area of medicine that remain largely misunderstood. Presently, there are more than 80 registered autoimmune disorders, affecting various parts of the body. More conditions may also turn out to be autoimmune related.
Conventional treatments for autoimmune disorders
Yeshurun, M, et al. “Cannabidiol for the Prevention of Graft-versus-Host-Disease after Allogeneic Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation: Results of a Phase II Study” Biol Blood Marrow Transplant. 2015
Immune system modulation
There has been a dramatic increase in the prevalence of autoimmune diseases since World War 2. Autoimmune conditions more commonly affect women than men. The National Institute of Health estimates that 23.5 million people in the USA have an autoimmune disease, while cancer affects 13 million in the country. The true number of those affected by autoimmunity is likely higher, due to misdiagnosis and general lack of understanding about the complexity of AI related conditions.