Could psychedelics tackle the obesity crisis? A longtime researcher in the field says his latest mouse study suggests potential
Psychedelics have experienced a renaissance in recent years amid a torrent of preclinical and clinical research suggesting it might provide a path to treat mood disorders conventional remedies have only scraped at. Now a preclinical trial from a young biotech suggests at least one psychedelic compound has effects beyond the mind, and — if you believe the still very, very early hype — could provide the first single remedy for some of the main complications of obesity.
A study in mice funded by Eleusis and published in Scientific Reports found a long-known drug called (R)-DOI could be used to treat cardiovascular disease, reducing inflammation in the aorta, decreasing overall and HDL cholesterol levels, and potentially curbing diabetes by increasing glucose tolerance.
Lead author Charles Nichols says diabetes and high cholesterol, though often results of the same underlying condition, require separate drugs and a restricted diet.
“This model that treats cardiovascular disease and metabolic disease — it’s all-encompassing,” Nichols, a professor of pharmacology at LSU, told Endpoints News. “Translated into the clinic in humans, it would be as if someone was obese, had diabetes, had high cholesterol, and was able to take a low dose of this drug at a sub-behavioral level and really treat several different aspects of the complications of being obese.”
They’re bold words, though almost muted in a psychedelic field brimming with hype. Researchers have called the results of some psychiatric studies “mind-blowing” as clinical trials hint at the power of psilocybin (the chemical in magic mushrooms) to alleviate depression and MDMA to relieve PTSD.
The notion that the same class of drugs might have other physiological and specifically anti-inflammatory effects is newer. Nichols, the son of longtime psychedelic research proponent David Nichols, understands the rhetoric can get rosy but points out that the trial was targeted. They tested DOI in other types of tissue and when it had little effect, focused on vascular indications.
“This is not a complete panacea,” said Nichols, who earlier touted his animal studies indicating DOI’s potential in asthma.
Nichols discovered that serotonin 5-HT2A receptor agonists, following a well-understood pathway psychedelics act on, can reduce inflammation by accident in his LSU lab in 2008. Later, he got a cold call from Shlomi Raz, a former Wall Street executive who went on to get a master’s in psychology at NYU.
Eleusis launched in 2013 with a mission, Raz told Endpoints, of exploring the broad possibilities for these agonists, with their work so far ranging from a trial on the effects of ‘micro-dosing’ LSD on time perception to filing a patent for the treatment of Alzheimer’s with LSD. Nichols has published several previous studies on psychedelics and anti-inflammatories, but this was notable in its ability to onramp into clinical trials.
Raz believes what is commonly called psychedelics have a broad array of impacts beyond their “psychedelic” function. He says he has peer-reviewed research coming soon that will help bolster that claim, and that the central question is how to unlock those effects without triggering the psychological impact.
“If you think of it as an iceberg,” Raz said, “maybe the tip of the iceberg is the psychiatrics and the part below the surface is not psychiatric.”
The vascular study showed physiological without any psychological effects (mice given a psychedelic can sometimes show behavior consistent with psychosis). The researchers fattened up mice on the “Western diet” for four months and at intervals administered DOI to one group and saline to a control.
They found that vascular inflammation was lower in the DOI, as they anticipated. They hadn’t anticipated that cholesterol would be down and glucose tolerance up, and they’re still not sure why.
Nichols, though, said the study was translatable to a clinical trial, and he was hopeful there would be a drug within 10 to 20 years. Regulation, more than the science, was the barrier. Raz was mum about what’s next, both in terms of other applications and in business model, but he left one clue:
“I can tell you it’s not a pill,” he said, “at first.”