Cannabinoids, mainly cannabidiol (CBD) and Δ9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), are the most studied group of compounds obtained from Cannabis sativa because of their several pharmaceutical properties. Current evidence suggests a crucial role of cannabinoids as potent anti-inflammatory agents for the treatment of chronic inflammatory diseases; however, the mechanisms remain largely unclear. Cytokine storm, a dysregulated severe inflammatory response by our immune system, is involved in the pathogenesis of numerous chronic inflammatory disorders, including coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), which results in the accumulation of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Therefore, we hypothesized that CBD and THC reduce the levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines by inhibiting key inflammatory signaling pathways. The nucleotide-binding and oligomerization domain (NOD)-like receptor family pyrin domain-containing 3 (NLRP3) inflammasome signaling has been implicated in a variety of chronic inflammatory diseases, which results in the release of pyroptotic cytokines, interleukin-1β (IL-1β) and IL-18. Likewise, the activation of the signal transducer and activator of transcription-3 (STAT3) causes increased expression of pro-inflammatory cytokines. We studied the effects of CBD and THC on lipopolysaccharide (LPS)-induced inflammatory response in human THP-1 macrophages and primary human bronchial epithelial cells (HBECs). Our results revealed that CBD and, for the first time, THC significantly inhibited NLRP3 inflammasome activation following LPS + ATP stimulation, leading to a reduction in the levels of IL-1β in THP-1 macrophages and HBECs. CBD attenuated the phosphorylation of nuclear factor-κB (NF-κB), and both cannabinoids inhibited the generation of oxidative stress post-LPS. Our multiplex ELISA data revealed that CBD and THC significantly diminished the levels of IL-6, IL-8, and tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α) after LPS treatment in THP-1 macrophages and HBECs. In addition, the phosphorylation of STAT3 was significantly downregulated by CBD and THC in THP-1 macrophages and HBECs, which was in turn attributed to the reduced phosphorylation of tyrosine kinase-2 (TYK2) by CBD and THC after LPS stimulation in these cells. Overall, CBD and THC were found to be effective in alleviating the LPS-induced cytokine storm in human macrophages and primary HBECs, at least via modulation of NLRP3 inflammasome and STAT3 signaling pathways. The encouraging results from this study warrant further investigation of these cannabinoids in vivo.
Keywords: NLRP3 inflammasome; STAT3; TNF-α; TYK2; cannabidiol; cannabinoids; cytokine storm; delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol; interleukins; macrophages; primary lung bronchial epithelial cells.