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Cannabis and obesity

Cannabis and obesity

It has long been known in the scientific community that drugs such as cannabis and the opioids cause a dramatic increase in food intake and in fact some studies have reported that cannabis users can increase in weight by up to 4lbs after only one week of cannabis smoking. This effect, and similar effects of opioid use, have been directly related to the ability of these drugs to affect the palatability centers of the brain - in other words following drug use, foods especially snack foods become more tasty.

The pharmaceutical industry has focussed on the development of drugs that block or mimic the action of the active components of opiate drugs and cannabis and a breakthrough was made in the 1990s when it was found that the human body makes a molecule, anandamide, that is similar to one of the natural ingredients of cannabis. Furthermore like cannabis, anandamide also increased food intake. Researchers have since been investigating whether blocking the actions of anandamide can have the reverse effect and reduce the desire to eat snack foods. The answer appears to be yes.

In 1997, researchers found that anandamide antagonists reduced the desire of rats to drink sucrose solution and more recently, the French Pharmaceutical giant Sanofi-Synthelabo have shown that their anandamide antagonist can treat obesity in humans.

Obesity is a massive health problem that is continuously growing - in fact based on current trends the whole of the US will be obese in the near future. Obesity causes an increased risk of developing many other diseases including diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and obesity is the second largest preventable cause of death in the US after smoking related diseases. Consequently health care costs are massive, 10% of the US health budget. Likewise, Americans spend $33 billion per year on weight lose products. Although most of these figures are US based, contrary to most beliefs, obesity is a worldwide problem with US and UK populations both reporting a 30% incidence of obesity. Germany and Italy fare even worse.
It is not surprising, therefore that drug companies are investigating new obesity treatments. This was an untapped market until 1997 when the first of three products was approved. Two of these drugs can be considered "mood-altering" and European sales figures for obesity drugs were estimated as $80 million in the first half of 2000 alone.

The general aim of obesity drugs is to reverse recent eating trends away from the frequent intake of snack foods at the expense of fruits and vegetables without necessarily altering hunger or fullness signals. In this respect anandamide antagonists are particularly exciting since they are able to preferentially reduce the intake of snack foods.

One particularly exciting discovery has been reported in the last few weeks by Dr Tim Kirkham at the University of Reading. As reported this week by LeadDiscovery, a leading firm of drug discovery, development and commercialization consultants, Dr Kirkham has shown that although anandamide and opioid antagonist both have an effect on eating, doses need to be quite high. This can increase the risk of toxicity. However, when administered together at low doses their effect is dramatic.

According to one LeadDiscovery consultant "we are excited about the movement of novel cannabinoid antagonists towards the obesity market. However we believe that Dr Kirkham's work can lead to significantly improved second generation drugs which are more effective and safer". Of course, like most findings of this nature further studies are required and the identification of one drug able to block both cannabinoids and opioids is necessary to fully exploit Dr Kirkham's findings. This could present challenges since the control of eating is complex, especially pathways related to reward and palatability. Experimental design requires subtle issues to be address however armed with Dr Kirkham's expertise, drug companies will be able to take the next step forward in the battle against obesity.

Finally, although Dr Kirham has shown the benefit of mixed cannabinoids and opioids antagonists in the control of food intake, a similar strategy has been adopted for a range of other disorders such as alcohol consumption. This research is therefore of wide-reaching importance.

For further information access "Novel anorectic strategies" through the LeadDiscovery website at or contact Dr Jon Goldhill at LeadDiscovery is a leading Sussex based firm of drug discovery, development and commercialization consultants whose aim is to combine a background in the pharmaceutical industry with an internet platform to help academic and biotech based research groups to exploit their technology.

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