Cannabinoids are a group of compounds present in Cannabis plant (Cannabis sativa L.). They mediate their physiological and behavioral effects by activating specific cannabinoid receptors. With the recent discovery of the cannabinoid receptors (CB1 and CB2) and the endocannabinoid system, research in this field has expanded exponentially. Cannabinoids have been shown to act as potent immunosuppressive and anti-inflammatory agents and have been shown to mediate beneficial effects in a wide range of immune-mediated diseases such as multiple sclerosis, diabetes, septic shock, rheumatoid arthritis, and allergic asthma. Cannabinoid receptor 1 (CB1) is mainly expressed on the cells of the central nervous system as well as in the periphery. In contrast, cannabinoid receptor 2 (CB2) is predominantly expressed on immune cells. The precise mechanisms through which cannabinoids mediate immunosuppression is only now beginning to be understood and can be broadly categorized into four pathways: apoptosis, inhibition of proliferation, suppression of cytokine and chemokine production and induction of T regulatory cells (T regs). Studies from our laboratory have focused on mechanisms of apoptosis induction by natural and synthetic cannabinoids through activation of CB2 receptors. In this review, we will focus on apoptotic mechanisms of immunosuppression mediated by cannabinoids on different immune cell populations and discuss how activation of CB2 provides a novel therapeutic modality against inflammatory and autoimmune diseases as well as malignancies of the immune system, without exerting the untoward psychotropic effects.
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