Reza Ghovanloo, a recent SFU PhD graduate in biomedical physiology and kinesiology (BPK), whose research looks at the many health claims of Cannabidiol.

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PhD graduate’s research helps answer why so many CBD health claims ‘Wonder Drug or Snake Oil?’

November 10, 2020
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By Stacey Makortoff

Since the legalization of cannabis in Canada last year, Cannabidiol (CBD), an active component of cannabis, continues to make health news. Reza Ghovanloo, a recent SFU PhD graduate  in biomedical physiology and kinesiology (BPK), says his research helps to understand why there are so many health claims related to CBD.

Ghovanloo, together with his supervisor, SFU professor Peter Ruben and additional members of Ruben’s lab, studied the effects of CBD on sodium channels. These channels are among the receptors through which some pain medications (such as lidocaine) work to block pain sensations.

Their research findings are among the first to determine that CBD does, in fact, block the sodium channels in the nerves, which could help reduce pain and also assist people suffering from seizures.

For his doctoral work, Ghovanloo undertook further research to understand why CBD acts the way it does on sodium channels. He discovered that CBD’s extremely hydrophobic (fat-loving) nature is vital to its medicinal activity; even more so than an agent such as lidocaine.

This means that our cells rapidly absorb CBD, which then works its magic with the nervous system’s electrical impulses via the sodium channels. And since sodium channels are in all nerve and muscle cells, and CBD is so easily absorbed into those cells, it’s easy to make claims that CBD has many health-related benefits.

“Some of the health claims could be false positives,” says Ghovanloo, “because CBD is so readily absorbed within our cells. We can’t tell if the reaction they’re getting is from the CBD or if it’s from something different altogether.”

What’s not yet understood is why CBD is so efficient with pain and seizures management, but doesn’t seem to cause issues in other cells of the body.

“Theoretically,” says Ghovanloo, “because of the hydrophobic nature of CBD, it should also cause havoc with sodium channels in the heart or in the brain, and cause issues. So far, we haven’t seen that happening. There’s so much we still don’t understand about the effects of CBD on the body.”

Ghovanloo successfully defended his doctoral thesis on Sept. 29. He never imagined when he started his undergraduate degree in molecular biology and biochemistry (MBB) at SFU, he would eventually complete his studies with a PhD in biomedical physiology and kinesiology (BPK).

“This was the best decision I’ve ever made,” says Ghovanloo. “When I chose to volunteer in molecular physiology with Peter Ruben it set me down the path I’m on today.”

“I consider SFU to be my home. I’ve spent one-third of my life at SFU, and it’s been really special,” says Ghovanloo. “It’s because Peter is an incredible mentor: he’s kind, supportive and intelligent.”

And while SFU may feel like home, Ghovanloo is set to continue on his academic journey with postdoctoral training in pain-related research at Yale University.