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Student investigates marijuana ingredients as potential HIV treatment

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Molly Long studied how the ingredients in marijuana could protect the brain from the spread of the HIV virus.

Molly Long spent her final summer as a Virginia Commonwealth University student surrounded by psychoactive drugs, but the 22-year-old wasn’t getting high. She was helping to develop a treatment for people who have late-stage HIV and AIDS.

From May through August, Long studied how the ingredients in marijuana could protect the brain from the spread of the HIV virus. “It’s not a cure to HIV or AIDS,” the clinical laboratory sciences major said. “It’s just a form of treatment for cognitive issues.”

The work was done under an undergraduate research and creative scholarship summer fellowship that is administered through the undergraduate research opportunities program and the VCU Office of Research and Innovation.

Molly learned a lot of laboratory techniques through this fellowship that she didn’t get as a student.

“Molly learned a lot of laboratory techniques through this fellowship that she didn’t get as a student,” said Melissa Jamerson, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Laboratory Sciences, VCU School of Allied Health Professions, and affiliate faculty in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, VCU School of Medicine. Jamerson mentored Long through the fellowship, which allows faculty members and students to partner on funded research in their fields. The idea behind the fellowship is to give undergraduates early hands-on experience under the guidance of faculty members with the goal of making significant progress throughout the summer on formal, structured research.

According to the World Health Organization, approximately 35 million people worldwide were living with HIV and AIDS in 2013. A neurological complication of late-stage AIDs infection, HIV-associated neurocognitive disorders can occur when the HIV virus crosses from the blood into the brain.

“Your white blood cells see this virus and they’re like, ‘That’s not me. That’s not supposed to be here,’” Long says. “They start spitting out these really powerful chemicals called cytokines.”

The cytokines aim to attack the HIV virus, but they end up damaging everything in their path. When the cytokines damage the brain, they spur motor, cognitive and behavioral issues. Long and Jamerson looked at whether chemicals unique to cannabis, called cannabinoids, can keep proteins released by the virus from damaging the brain. “Cannabinoids have been shown to dampen and even inhibit the production of cytokines,” Long said. “If we can get these cannabinoids to bind, then maybe the cells won’t spit out those cytokines and cause damage to the area.”

Prior to starting the fellowship, Long had only conducted experiments within a classroom setting. The fellowship allowed her the opportunity to learn how to troubleshoot and apply what she had learned in the classroom to a real-world setting.

“There are a lot more tears involved,” Long said. “There was one trial where I went through the whole procedure and I got invalid results. More than 20 hours of work just went in the trash.”

However, mistakes that allowed her to learn through trial and error proved to be one of the most valuable aspects of the fellowship. “As a student when Molly was taking classes and something didn’t work, she had an instructor there telling her why,” Jamerson said. “In this setting it was up to her to figure out what went wrong when something didn’t work and to figure out what she could do to make it work.”

Long’s research wrapped up in mid-August and the results confirmed her hypothesis. She found that adding cannabinoids to white blood cells that had been exposed to HIV proteins caused a decrease in cytokines. Further quantitative studies are necessary to confirm the results and Jamerson expects it to be a few years before the experiments can be tested on human subjects, but the work that Long did this summer helped contribute to the field of research. Furthermore, it gave Long an opportunity to apply what she had learned as a student and to practice working at a lab before she graduates in May.

“Dr. Jamerson is an extremely intelligent, patient and encouraging individual,” Long said. “Working with her has been a fantastic opportunity and experience for me. Her support has already impacted my future in health care.”

 

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