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A team of Italian scientists recently discovered a new cannabis compound that may be 30 times more powerful than tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the plant’s most researched and intoxicating compound. The new cannabinoid is named tetrahydrocannabiphorol, or THCP, and was shown to bind more effectively to human cannabinoid receptors than THC.

Researchers also discovered another new cannabinoid, known as cannabidiphorol, or CBDP, which resembles CBD in structure. Researchers have discovered nearly 150 cannabinoids in the marijuana plant, but not all have been isolated and studied. The discovery of these two new compounds shows how much more there is to learn about cannabis.

What Is THCP?

The novel and potentially potent cannabinoid, THCP, was discovered by a team of Italian scientists who published their findings in the journal Nature on Dec. 30, 2019. Scientists isolated and identified THCP from a medical cannabis strain known as FM2 using mass spectrometry to detect all metabolites present.

Based on the study’s result, THCP was able to strongly bind to cannabinoid receptors, up to 33 times more than THC does and 63 times more than THCV. Researchers believe THCP concentration in cannabis could play a pivotal role in potency for strains with the same THC levels. THCP could be the defining factor that makes a strain extra strong.

Dr. Cinzia Citti, the lead author of the study, said, “this means that these compounds have higher affinity for the receptors in the human body. In cannabis varieties where THC is present in very low concentrations, then we can think that the presence of another, more active cannabinoid can explain those effects.”

What Are Alkyl Side Chains?

Alkyl side chains are at the heart of why some cannabinoids are more potent than others. Most of marijuana’s compounds have a side chain that’s just five atoms long, according to the study’s authors. The side chain length affects the activity level of the cannabinoid on receptors in the body’s endocannabinoid system. The authors discovered that the THCP cannabinoid with a longer side chain than THC has a higher potency.

Researchers noted that a minimum of three carbon atoms is necessary to properly bind to cannabinoid receptors, particularly CB1 receptors located in the brain. Potency peaks with an eight carbon atom chain. Any side chain with more than eight atoms has a decreased binding activity for cannabinoid receptors. Researchers also found that THCP was 5 to 10 times more active than THC on CB2 receptors located throughout the body, particularly in areas associated with immune function.

THCP has a side chain consisting of seven atoms compared to THC’s five-atom chain. According to the researchers, a cannabinoid with more than five carbon atoms in a side chain has never been reported as naturally occurring. Italian scientists not only discovered the compounds, but also isolated and identified them.

Dr. Jane Ishmael, associate professor in Oregon State University’s College of Pharmacy, said, “the challenge is that it can take a long time to isolate, especially with rare sources. I get the impression that these products were present in small amounts, so it’s a surprise to find the natural products from a cannabis plant that we’ve known about for a long time.”

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What Is CBDP?

Italian researchers also discovered another new cannabinoid, named CBDP, with a seven atom alkyl side chain compared to CBD’s fine link chain. Researchers noted that investigating the effects of THCP and CBDP will be ongoing, but CBDP won’t be a priority. According to the authors of the study, “ it is known that CBD binds with poor affinity to both CB1 and CB2 receptors.”

Researchers will continue to focus on testing the anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and anti-epileptic activity of both compounds, but they don’t have high hopes for CBDP’s effectiveness. They believe a longer side chain won’t improve binding capabilities by much, but acknowledge that “science can hold great surprises.”

Improving Cannabis Therapy

Cannabis therapy is an increasingly popular alternative treatment method for a variety of medical conditions, especially ones that haven’t been alleviated with conventional treatment options. Cannabis therapy, however, requires careful trial-and-error for patients to find the right delivery method, dose, and retain a consistent experience.

The discovery of THCP and CBDP shows just how much more there is to know about the cannabis plant. THC alone was traditionally associated with a strain’s potency, but experiences differ from person to person, even when people take the same dose. Now we know that THC isn’t the single cannabinoid responsible for the potency and effects of cannabis on patients.

Cannabinoids such as THCV, CBDV, and CBG used to be foreign concepts for some breeders and consumers, but new research and innovative breeding techniques have produced cannabis strains with relatively high concentrations of these minor cannabinoids. Breeders who can cultivate strains rich in minor cannabinoids can make the strain more widely available and help consumers find the best experience for them.

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The recent findings open a path for the production of marijuana extracts featuring certain cannabinoid receptors for targeted physical and mental effects. Ongoing studies into the identification of new cannabis compounds can help researchers study the effects of cannabinoids as medicine more effectively. 

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