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Plant with cannabis qualities opens new avenues for medical use

Israeli researchers studying the wooly umbrella, or Helichrysum umbraculigerum, discovered that it produces a number of active compounds found in cannabis.

A team of Israeli researchers found that the woolly umbrella produces a number of active compounds in cannabis, including some that have medical uses. Photo by Dr. Sagit Meir via TPS.
A team of Israeli researchers found that the woolly umbrella produces a number of active compounds in cannabis, including some that have medical uses. Photo by Dr. Sagit Meir via TPS.

A velvety yellow plant native to South Africa could open new doors for developing medicines currently requiring cannabis plants, Israeli researchers have discovered.

A team of researchers from the Weizmann Institute of Science found that the woolly umbrella, or Helichrysum umbraculigerum, produces a number of active compounds found in cannabis, including some that have medical uses. The team’s findings were published in the peer-reviewed Nature Plants journal on Monday.

The compounds, known as cannabinoids, are widely used to relieve pain, nausea, anxiety and epileptic seizures, and the list of their possible uses is rapidly growing.

The Weizmann team identified more than 40 cannabinoids found in the wooly umbrella. The researchers also revealed the series of biochemical steps the plant takes when it makes these compounds and showed how these steps can be reproduced in a laboratory to synthesize or even engineer new cannabinoids that currently do not exist in nature.

Although the more familiar cannabis plant produces more than 100 different cannabinoids, the wooly umbrella is a fast-growing perennial plant.

“We have found a major new source of cannabinoids and developed tools for their sustained production, which can help explore their enormous therapeutic potential,” said Dr. Shirley Berman, who led the study.

Molecular receptors that respond to cannabinoids are common in humans, not only in the brain but also throughout the body, suggesting that the compounds that bind to them might be used to treat everything from cancer to neurodegenerative diseases.

The wooly umbrella belongs to an entirely different family of plants than cannabis; its relatives include sunflowers, daisies and lettuce. However, researchers noted that the plant has been known to release intoxicating fumes when burnt in African folk rituals.

Berman’s team sequenced the entire genome of the wooly umbrella and used advanced analytical chemistry, including high-resolution mass spectroscopy, to identify the kinds of cannabinoids it contains. Using nuclear magnetic resonance, the researchers revealed the precise structure of more than a dozen of these cannabinoids and other related metabolites.

They also traced the entire biochemical pathway involved in the production of cannabinoids and determined where in the plant they were made.

It turns out that the wooly umbrella manufactures cannabinoids primarily in its leaves, possibly giving it an economic advantage over cannabis, which makes these compounds in the shorter-lived and harder-to-harvest flower clusters, or inflorescences.

“The next exciting step would be to determine the properties of the more than 30 new cannabinoids we’ve discovered, and then to see what therapeutic uses they might have,” said Berman.

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