The present review focuses on the role of the endogenous cannabinoid system in the modulation of immune response and control of cancer cell proliferation. The involvement of cannabinoid receptors, endogenous ligands and enzymes for their biosynthesis and degradation, as well as of cannabinoid receptor-independent events is discussed. The picture arising from the recent literature appears very complex, indicating that the effects elicited by the stimulation of the endocannabinoid system are strictly dependent on the specific compounds and cell types considered. Both the endocannabinoid anandamide and its congener palmitoylethanolamide, exert a negative action in the onset of a variety of parameters of the immune response. However, 2-arachidonoylglycerol appears to be the true endogenous ligand for peripheral cannabinoid receptors, although its action as an immunomodulatory molecule requires further characterization. Modulation of the endocannabinoid system interferes with cancer cell proliferation either by inhibiting mitogenic autocrine/paracrine loops or by directly inducing apoptosis; however, the proapoptotic effect of anandamide is not shared by other endocannabinoids and suggests the involvement of non-cannabinoid receptors, namely the VR1 class of vanilloid receptors. In conclusion, further investigations are needed to elucidate the function of endocannabinoids as immunosuppressant and antiproliferative/cytotoxic agents. The experimental evidence reviewed in this article argues in favor of the therapeutic potential of these compounds in immune disorders and cancer.
Copyright 2002 Published by Elsevier Science Ltd.