The drug acts on a pain-sensing pathway in the spinal cord called the cannabinoid receptor 2 (CB2). Previous research has shown that cannabis chemicals can act as pain relievers, but their use is limited because of psychological side effects.
The new compound, called JWH133, is a wholly synthetic cannabinoid molecule manufactured in a laboratory that selectively targets CB2. Research has shown that the CB2 receptor is present in human spinal cord tissue, at levels related to the severity of oesteoarthritis pain.
Scientists believe this is evidence that JWH133 may combat osteoarthritis pain in humans.
The findings are published in the online journal Public Library of Science ONE.
Lead researcher Professor Victoria Chapman, from the Arthritis Research UK Pain Centre at the University of Nottingham, said: “This finding is significant, as spinal and brain pain signalling pathways are known to make a major contribution to pain associated with osteoarthritis.
“These new data support the further evaluation of the selective cannabinoid-based interventions for the treatment of osteoarthritis pain.”
The research suggests the compound may have a twin affect, reducing both pain and joint inflammation.
Professor Alan Silman, medical director of Arthritis Research UK, said: “This research does not support the use of recreational cannabis use. What it does suggest is that there is potential to develop a synthetic drug that mimics the behaviour of cannabinoid receptors without causing serious side effects.”