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Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Cardiologist awarded $2.3M to study cannabis use and heart health in people living with HIV

By Michael Walter
July 6, 2022

A cardiologist with the 
University of Miami Miller School of Medicine has received $2.3 million in funding to examine how cannabis use affects the cardiovascular health of people living with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Claudia Martinez, MD, an associate professor of clinical medicine, was awarded the Avenir Award from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The four-year investment will support Martinez’s Cannabis-Heart and HIV study, named CannHeart for short.

“We know that people with HIV have a higher risk of heart disease, but don't know what happens when they use cannabis, which for them is legal to use for medical reasons,” Martinez said in a statement. “So, they are getting the cannabis for health benefits, yet we may be increasing their cardiovascular risk. We don’t know.”

CannHeart represents a collaboration between Martinez and a team of specialists. The group aims to examine people living with HIV who regularly use cannabis and have no heart disease, focusing on tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) levels. Cardiac MRI technology is also expected to play a key role, allowing the researchers to closely monitor each participant’s heart health and how any changes in the imaging data are linked to changes in THC and/or CBD.  

Martinez emphasized that people living with HIV are already taking cannabis to ease certain symptoms. She hopes she and her colleagues can make discoveries that have an immediate impact on the lives of these patients.  

“We need an answer now,” she said. “We cannot wait for years to understand this.”

Prior research on cannabis/marijuana use and people living with HIV

Cannabinoid dronabinol was approved as a treatment for loss of appetite in people living with HIV/AIDS back in 1992. The approval came as a way to help combat the unintentional weight loss associated with these potentially fatal illnesses.  

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), this is an area where much more research—including studies such as CannHeart—is needed.

“There have been a few other studies of cannabis or cannabinoids for appetite and weight loss in people with HIV/AIDS, but they were short and only included small numbers of people, and their results may have been biased,” the NCCIH stated on its website. “Overall, the evidence that cannabis/cannabinoids are beneficial in people with HIV/AIDS is limited.”

Prior research on cannabis/marijuana use and cardiovascular health

In recent years, cardiologists and other healthcare specialists have spent more and more time examining the relationship between marijuana use and cardiovascular health.

While one recent study in the American Journal of Cardiology linked marijuana use to a heightened risk of heart rhythm issues in older adultsan analysis presented at the American Stroke Association’s International Stroke Conference 2022 found that marijuana increased the risk of recurrent stroke by as much as 48%.

In addition, a study published in JACC: Cardiovascular Interventions found that a history of recent marijuana use was associated with a greater risk of cerebrovascular accidents (CVA) or bleeding among percutaneous coronary intervention patients.

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