The Endocannabinoid System as an Emerging Target of Pharmacotherapy

Abstract

“The recent identification of cannabinoid receptors and their endogenous lipid ligands has triggered an exponential growth of studies exploring the endocannabinoid system and its regulatory functions in health and disease. Such studies have been greatly facilitated by the introduction of selective cannabinoid receptor antagonists and inhibitors of endocannabinoid metabolism and transport, as well as mice deficient in cannabinoid receptors or the endocannabinoid-degrading enzyme fatty acid amidohydrolase. In the past decade, the endocannabinoid system has been implicated in a growing number of physiological functions, both in the central and peripheral nervous systems and in peripheral organs. More importantly, modulating the activity of the endocannabinoid system turned out to hold therapeutic promise in a wide range of disparate diseases and pathological conditions, ranging from mood and anxiety disorders, movement disorders such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease, neuropathic pain, multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injury, to cancer, atherosclerosis, myocardial infarction, stroke, hypertension, glaucoma, obesity/metabolic syndrome, and osteoporosis, to name just a few. An impediment to the development of cannabinoid medications has been the socially unacceptable psychoactive properties of plant-derived or synthetic agonists, mediated by CB(1) receptors. However, this problem does not arise when the therapeutic aim is achieved by treatment with a CB(1) receptor antagonist, such as in obesity, and may also be absent when the action of endocannabinoids is enhanced indirectly through blocking their metabolism or transport. The use of selective CB(2) receptor agonists, which lack psychoactive properties, could represent another promising avenue for certain conditions. The abuse potential of plant-derived cannabinoids may also be limited through the use of preparations with controlled composition and the careful selection of dose and route of administration. The growing number of preclinical studies and clinical trials with compounds that modulate the endocannabinoid system will probably result in novel therapeutic approaches in a number of diseases for which current treatments do not fully address the patients’ need. Here, we provide a comprehensive overview on the current state of knowledge of the endocannabinoid system as a target of pharmacotherapy.”

Future Directions

“The length of this review, necessitated by the steady growth in the number of indications for the potential therapeutic use of cannabinoid-related medications, is a clear sign of the emerging importance of this field. This is further underlined by the quantity of articles in the public database dealing with the biology of cannabinoids, which numbered ∼200 to 300/year throughout the 1970s to reach an astonishing 5900 in 2004. The growing interest in the underlying science has been matched by a growth in the number of cannabinoid drugs in pharmaceutical development from two in 1995 to 27 in 2004, with the most actively pursued therapeutic targets being pain, obesity, and multiple sclerosis (Hensen, 2005). As in any rapidly growing area of research, not all the leads will turn out to be useful or even valid. Nevertheless, it is safe to predict that new therapeutic agents that affect the activity of the endocannaboinoid system will emerge and become members of our therapeutic armamentarium. The plant-derived cannabinoid preparation Sativex has already gained regulatory approval in Canada for the treatment of spasticity and pain associated with multiple sclerosis, and the CB1 receptor antagonist rimonabant has been approved in Europe and is awaiting Food and Drug Administration approval in the United States for the treatment of the metabolic syndrome. Undoubtedly, these will be followed by new and improved compounds aimed at the same or additional targets in the endocannabinoid system. However, it may be only after the widespread therapeutic use of such compounds that some important side effects will emerge. Although this occurrence would be undesirable from a health care perspective, such side effects may shed further light on the biological functions of endocannabinoids in health and disease.”

http://pharmrev.aspetjournals.org/content/58/3/389.long

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