Scientist of the Week

Caitlin Williamson

What do the immune system and marijuana and have in common? Lots, according to senior biology major Alex Cohen.Working in an independent study with Associate Professor of Chemistry David Hall, Cohen is currently researching the relationship between the immune system and a particular class of chemicals found in marijuana.

The marijuana chemicals Cohen focuses on are called cannabinoids. Interestingly, Cannabinoids also apparently occur naturally in the human body. Cohen’s research pertains to the way the immune system responds to these cannabinoids.

According to Cohen, the discovery of this class of chemicals is relatively recent.

“What’s really interesting about this is that endocannabinoids [those produced by the human body] were discovered less than 20 years ago,” Cohen said. “No one had any idea that they existed, and now we found out they exist, and they’re apparently really important.”

“A growing body of evidence indicates that endocannabinoids are involved in almost every major biological process that occurs in the body,” Cohen said. “I’m really interested in their involvement in the regulation of [the] immune response.”

Cohen has selected one specific cell type involved in the immune response for his cannabinoid research. “I am looking at the effects of cannabinoids on the production of reactive oxygen species in macrophages — a type of white blood cell,” Cohen said.

Also currently working in the field of cannabinoid research are a number of drug companies who are developing more effective memory-enhancing drugs, appetite-enhancing drugs, and pain medication.

Cohen heard about cannabinoids from a lecture he attended at the Medical College of Wisconsin during an internship two summers ago. Cohen was a part of the Summer Program for Undergraduate Research at MCW, which is in Milwaukee.

“I remember I went to a lecture on endocannabinoid research that this professor was doing, and it just sounded interesting — it really fascinated me,” Cohen said.

After returning to Lawrence, Cohen decided he wanted to learn more about cannabinoids. That was when he turned to Hall.

“Professor Hall has a bit of a background in immunology, and we decided to take our interests and put them together — and we got this,” Cohen said.

Cohen’s lab work consists of drawing blood provided from student donors and extracting white blood cells. He then treats the white blood cells with cannabinoids to see if the cannabinoids have any effect on the production of reactive oxygen species.

After he graduates, Cohen plans on going to either graduate or medical school, although he is not sure if he wants to continue studying cannabinoids.

“I see myself with a career in research, but there isn’t much funding for endocannabinoid research right now,” Cohen said. “Although, cannabinoids are a very hot topic in biochemical research, so maybe I could find myself doing something else with them.