South African 'wooly umbrella' plant could be used to treat pain - Israeli study

Published date01 May 2023
Publication titleJerusalem Post, The: Web Edition Articles (Israel)
In a study published today in the prestigious journal Nature Plants, researchers at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot identified more than 40 cannabinoids in the woolly umbrella. The team revealed the series of biochemical steps the plant takes when it makes these compounds and also showed how these steps can be reproduced in the lab to synthesize or even engineer new cannabinoids

Known to botanists, as Helichrysum umbraculigerum, the woolly umbrella is a tufted perennial herb that can reach one meter in height and is popular for making a garden border. The young parts are gray and thinly woolly, velvety and leafy, and the golden yellow flowers grow in clusters webbed together with "wool," forming a parasol-like structure between January and April.

The familiar cannabis plant makes more than 100 different cannabinoids, and it remains their iconic producer. But the woolly umbrella – which grows very fast – is a respectable runner-up. "We have found a major new source of cannabinoids and developed tools for their sustained production that can help explore their enormous therapeutic potential," said Dr. Shirley (Paula) Berman, who led the study in Prof. Asaph Aharoni's lab in Weizmann's plant and environmental sciences department.

Cannabinoids used for medical purposes

Cannabinoids are already widely applied to relieve pain, nausea, anxiety and epileptic seizures, and the list of their possible uses is quickly growing. Molecular receptors that respond to these compounds are common in humans, not only in the brain but also throughout the body; this suggests that the cannabinoids that bind to them might be used to treat everything from cancer to neurodegenerative diseases.

The promise that cannabinoids hold for medicine is precisely why Aharoni's lab launched a study of the woolly umbrella. Its relatives include sunflowers, daisies and lettuce. But woolly umbrella has long been known to be burned in folk rituals to release intoxicating fumes, which hinted that it might contain chemicals affecting the brain. In fact, German scientists who studied the plant more than four decades ago found evidence that it contains cannabinoids, but more modern studies failed to reproduce their findings.

Now Berman and colleagues, using a battery of state-of-the-art technologies, confirmed that early report. They sequenced the entire genome of the woolly umbrella and used advanced analytical chemistry, including high-resolution mass spectroscopy, to identify the kinds...

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