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Profiling programme about body’s own marijuana brings institutes together

Bringing together institutes and research groups, how do you do that? The Faculty of Science set up a joint research theme and financed three PhD positions. After four years, the profiling programme Endocannabinoids expires. ‘It really brought us together, and the collaborations remain.’

Multidisciplinary

The faculty profiling programme Endocannabinoids is a multidisciplinary research programme, with as participants the institutes for chemistry, biology and drug research. The three PhD students from the programme, Vasu Kantae (LACDR), Floris Luchtenburg (IBL) and Elliot Mock (LIC) have almost finished their PhDs. In addition, other researchers from the participating institutes and also the LUMC contributed to the programme.

New molecules

Chemist and endocannabinoid expert Mario van der Stelt coordinated the programme. 'We succeeded in drawing up a very coherent programme,' he observes. 'Thomas Hankemeier of LACDR has set up a method to measure low concentrations of substances in cells, animal models and in a clinical setting. With my group at the LIC we have made new molecules, which we could use to test these methods for their effectiveness. My colleague Laura Heitman and our postdoc Andrea Martella looked at binding kinetics - how does a medicine bind to the active place in the body - and has developed new methods for this. Lastly, Patrick Rensen from the LUMC tested the substances in animal models and, together with Hankemeier, measured the endocannabinoids in human samples. "Finally, at the IBL, Marcel Schaaf and Michael Richardson coordinated behavioral studies with zebrafishes to measure the effects of cannabinoids.

Translational research, therefore, summarizes Van der Stelt. 'That it all works in this way is unique. The profiling programme has made that possible.'

The body's own cannabis

In addition to being a soft drug, cannabis is also known as a potential medicine - in the Netherlands, among other things, the tops of the Cannabis sativa plant are available on prescription at the pharmacy. For example, cannabis can help patients with multiple sclerosis suppress the symptoms of their disease. In cancer patients it can support the appetite and suppress nausea.

The active ingredient in cannabis has been known since the 1960s: THC. In 1992, the Israeli chemist Raphael Mechoulam identified the proteins responsible for the (psycho) active effects of THC. It turned out people do not have these receptors for nothing. The body itself makes substances that resemble cannabis: endocannabinoids. They play a role in a series of processes, from pain sensation to appetite, memory, blood pressure and exercise. The research into endocannabinoids has since then taken off. Researchers like Mario van der Stelt try to understand how the system works. This provides fundamental insights into the functioning of the brain. These can lead to targets for new treatment methods for various disorders.

Success

The programme consequently yielded quite a bit. For example, more than twelve publications have been rolled out, including in Science and Nature Communications. There were two patents and insights from the research were directly processed in education - for second-year LST students and in honours lectures.

According to Van der Stelt, the success factor is that each participant has contributed his own expertise to a common theme. 'Chemical proteomics, synthesis, binding kinetics, brown fat metabolism, behavioral studies, metabolomics,' he sums up easily. 'With the entire programme we met about three times a year to share our research with each other. At this moments, you make your agenda free for a whole afternoon to talk and discuss about it. That always yielded very good insights. '

How does he view the future of the profiling programme? 'My own group will continue to work on this subject anyway, I have been awarded a VICI grant this year which builds on this.' The collaborations also continue. Van der Stelt: 'Together with Thomas Hankemeier I have applied for the top sector chemistry, and there are more applications. And we are now working together with a number of companies. The programme will certainly continue to exist. '

International endocannabinoid conference in Leiden

From June 30 to July 5, the 28th annual congress of The International Cannabinoid Research Society (ICRS) took place in Leiden. More than 500 participants from 34 countries discussed cannabinoids from various disciplines for five days: psychology, clinical science, pharmacology, chemistry, etc. It was the first time that the congress took place in the Netherlands, according to Van der Stelt, who organized it. He was the winner of the Young Investigator Award of IRCS last year, and therefore gave a lecture. In addition, several PhD students from the profiling programme gave a presentation. Ming Jiang (LIC) won a poster award. The discoverer of THC and endocannobinoids, Raphael Mechoulam, was also present.

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