Marijuana components suppress induction and cytolytic function of murine cytotoxic T cells in vitro and in vivo

J Toxicol Environ Health. 1991 Apr;32(4):465-77. doi: 10.1080/15287399109531496.


Killer lymphocytes play a major role in host defense against tumors and infectious diseases. Previously, we reported that delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and II-hydroxy-delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (II-hydroxy-THC) suppressed the cytolytic activity of cultured natural killer (NK) cells. Also, we showed that the drugs appeared to be affecting a stage in the killing process subsequent to the binding of the killer cell to the target cell. In the present report, we have extended these studies to an examination of the effect of cannabinoids on the activity of cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs). The cytolytic activity of CTLs generated by cocultivation with either allospecific stimulators or TNP-modified-self stimulators were suppressed by both THC and II-hydroxy-THC treatment. Allospecific CTLs generated in vivo were also inhibited by an in vitro exposure to either THC or II-hydroxy-THC, and the sensitivity of these cells to drug effects appeared to be greater than the sensitivity of the in vitro generated CTLs. Suppression of cytolytic function by THC and II-hydroxy-THC was maximal after a 4-h drug treatment, suggesting that the drug effects were inducible and therefore required a finite period of time to develop maximally. As seen in previous studies involving NK cells, drug treatment of mature CTLs appears to have little effect on the binding capacity of these cells for the target. However, the maximal killing capacity of the cells and the frequency of CTLs were significantly reduced by drug treatment. In addition to suppressing the cytolytic activity of mature effector CTLs, we also show that drug treatment inhibits both the proliferation of lymphocytes responding to an allogeneic stimulus and the maturation of these lymphocytes to mature CTLs. Similarly, CTL activity developing in vivo could be inhibited by THC injection. These results suggest that CTLs are inhibited by cannabinoids by at least two mechanisms. First, the cytolytic activity of mature killers is suppressed at some point beyond the binding to the target cell. Second, the cannabinoids appear to suppress the normal development of these mature effector cells from less mature precursor cells.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cannabinoids / pharmacology*
  • Cell Survival / drug effects
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Dronabinol / analogs & derivatives
  • Dronabinol / pharmacology
  • Female
  • Lymphocyte Activation / drug effects
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C3H
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • T-Lymphocytes, Cytotoxic / drug effects*


  • Cannabinoids
  • 11-hydroxy-delta(9)-tetrahydrocannabinol
  • Dronabinol