LETHBRIDGE, ALTA. -- Igor and Olga Kovalchuk have spent roughly four years working with cannabis strains from around the world to create new hybrids that demonstrate certain therapeutic properties.

With the on-set of the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Lethbridge biology professors have been exploring how some cannabis extracts can help to combat the virus.

They investigated how specific cannabis extracts could be used as additional treatments to help ease some of the symptoms and reduce the spread of the virus

They released their as preprints which have since been peer reviewed and published to Aging which is one of the top bio-medical journals.

The studies, titled ‘In Search of Preventative Strategies’ and ‘Fighting the Storm’ found that certain cannabis extracts help to prevent the virus from entering a person’s cells and can also help to avoid cytokine storms which can lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome.

“Peer review is extremely important,” said Dr. Olga Kovalchuk.

Igor Kovalchuk

“We reproduced our original findings and also proved the impacts of the extracts in the lung tissues. These subsequent studies further substantiated our original results.”

When the SARS-CoV-2 virus enters a person’s cells, it targets a specific protein on the surface of the cell called ACE2.

Essentially, Dr. Igor Kovalchuk said ACE2 acts as a gateway for the virus.

“The virus recognizes this cell as infectable by the presence of the ACE2 receptor,” said Dr. Kovalchuk.

“We tested whether the application of several of those [cannabis] extracts to see if they would reduce the number of receptors on the surface of the cell and we identified a dozen or so varieties that reduce the expression of the [ACE2] receptor by up to 80 per cent.”

Reducing cell receptors

Imagine you have a house with a hundred doors and just outside, there are thousands of people lined up to get in each minute.

Reducing the number of receptors of a cell is like closing 80 of those doors, drastically slowing down the time in which people can get into your house.

“That’s how pathogens work. Especially viruses. They need to get into your cells in order to replicate and our immune system can target them,” said Dr. Kovalchuk.

“If the virus enters more slowly because we have fewer receptors, our system has a lot more time to actually target and eliminate those viruses.”

Dr. Kovalchuk adds that SARS CoV-2 typically attacks the lungs, the intestine and the oral cavity.

The U of L professors have partnered with American-based Good Pharmaceutical Development Company which, with the scientific data collected by the Kovalchuks, has developed a therapeutic oral rinse to combat the virus.

Clinical study underway

A clinical study into the efficacy of the oral rinse is currently under way, but the findings thus far have been positive.

“We’ve developed a clinical score that details in a numerical way patients’ symptoms at the onset of the study. Things like the presence or absence of fever, the height of the fever, the presence or absence of chest pain, shortness of breath, loss of taste and loss of smell, and we gave them a numerical score based upon the severity.” said the company’s president Dr. Larry Good.

“In an interim analysis of our data, we have found a very significant reduction in that score. The average score on enrollment was a four. After 14 days of treatment, the average score was 0.4. So, a pretty remarkable reduction in symptoms.”

The company is also tracking the number of days it takes for taste and smell to return.

The oral rinse is basically a type of mouthwash that the company says should be vigorously swished around the mouth and then swallowed.

Good Pharma is now in discussions with an investment bank and a distribution company in the U.S.

If the clinical study proves successful, the mouthwash will be sold in the U.S. over the counter.

However, it’s a much more complicated process to gain approval from Health Canada.

“Health Canada does not allow natural products with active cannabis ingredients. They only allow to put roots, seeds and stems of the plant into the natural extract and these parts of the plant do not have active ingredients. So, it’s useless to do that,” said Dr. Igor Kovalchuk.

To get medicine in Canada, people need to go through either pharma, or get what’s considered a natural product.

Anything available to purchase over the counter is considered a natural product.

When cannabis was legalized in Canada, Health Canada put new rules surrounding cannabis in place.

“This came as a shock to many companies that they specifically said, the only parts of the plant that can go into a natural product, are the only parts of the plant that have no active ingredient. This completely defies the purpose entirely! Why would I develop a natural product that doesn’t have cannabinoids or terpenes?” said Dr. Igor Kovalchuk

Either way, as it currently stands, the mouthwash will only be available in the U.S. if the clinical study is successful.

Both Dr. Kovalchuk and Dr. Good stressed the importance of how specific these cannabis strains are.

They said people should not be simply consuming cannabis thinking it will help fight or ward off COVID-19.

Experts also say a successful immunization program is still front and center in battling the spread of the virus and the mouthwash is in no way designed for people experiencing severe COVID-19 symptoms.