Journal article Open Access

Elevating endocannabinoid levels: pharmacological strategies and potential therapeutic applications

Pertwee, Roger G.

The endocannabinoid system consists of cannabinoid CB1 and CB2 receptors, of endogenous agonists for these receptors known as "endocannabinoids', and of processes responsible for endocannabinoid biosynthesis, cellular uptake and metabolism. There is strong evidence first, that this system up-regulates in certain disorders as indicated by an increased release of endocannabinoids onto their receptors and/or by increases in the expression levels or coupling efficiency of these receptors, and second, that this up-regulation often appears to reduce or abolish unwanted effects of these disorders or to slow their progression. This discovery has raised the possibility of developing a medicine that enhances up-regulation of the endocannabinoid system associated with these disorders by inhibiting the cellular uptake or intracellular metabolism of an endocannabinoid following its "autoprotective' endogenous release. For inhibition of endocannabinoid metabolism, research has focused particularly on two highly investigated endocannabinoids, anandamide and 2-arachidonoyl glycerol, and hence on inhibitors of the main anandamide-metabolising enzyme, fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), and of the main 2-arachidonoyl glycerol-metabolising enzyme, monoacylglycerol (MAG) lipase. The resulting data have provided strong preclinical evidence that selective FAAH and MAG lipase inhibitors would ameliorate the unwanted effects of several disorders, when administered alone or with a cyclooxygenase inhibitor, and that the benefit-to-risk ratio of a FAAH inhibitor would exceed that of a MAG lipase inhibitor or dual inhibitor of FAAH and MAG lipase. Promising preclinical data have also been obtained with inhibitors of endocannabinoid cellular uptake. There is now an urgent need for clinical research with these enzyme and uptake inhibitors.

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