The endocannabinoid system (ECS) is an endogenous signalling pathway involved in the control of several gastrointestinal (GI) functions at both peripheral and central levels. In recent years, it has become apparent that the ECS is pivotal in the regulation of GI motility, secretion and sensitivity, but endocannabinoids (ECs) are also involved in the regulation of intestinal inflammation and mucosal barrier permeability, suggesting their role in the pathophysiology of both functional and organic GI disorders. Genetic studies in patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease have indeed shown significant associations with polymorphisms or mutation in genes encoding for cannabinoid receptor or enzyme responsible for their catabolism, respectively. Furthermore, ongoing clinical trials are testing EC agonists/antagonists in the achievement of symptomatic relief from a number of GI symptoms. Despite this evidence, there is a lack of supportive RCTs and relevant data in human beings, and hence, the possible therapeutic application of these compounds is raising ethical, political and economic concerns. More recently, the identification of several EC-like compounds able to modulate ECS function without the typical central side effects of cannabino-mimetics has paved the way for emerging peripherally acting drugs. This review summarizes the possible mechanisms linking the ECS to GI disorders and describes the most recent advances in the manipulation of the ECS in the treatment of GI diseases.
© 2017 The Authors. Journal of Cellular and Molecular Medicine published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd and Foundation for Cellular and Molecular Medicine.
endocannabinoid system; functional gastrointestinal disorders; gastrointestinal pathophysiology; inflammatory bowel disease; non-alcoholic steatohepatitis