Psy­che­del­ic drug re­search breaks out of deep freeze as re­searchers head for the clin­ic with am­bi­tious tri­al plans

David Nichols en­tered grad­u­ate school in 1969 with dreams of crack­ing LSD. He was a child of the 60s, his friends drop­ping tabs and go­ing on about the vi­sions they saw – the big bang, god, in­fin­i­ty pro­ject­ed – and how it changed them in ways on­ly ma­jor life events could. Nichols was go­ing to fig­ure out how it all worked.

David Nichols Pur­due

And then in 1970, Con­gress passed the Con­trolled Sub­stance Act. LSD, which the gov­ern­ment had stud­ied ex­ten­sive­ly for two decades, be­came a Sched­ule I drug. The dol­lars washed up. For 30 years, psy­che­delics be­came all but un­touch­able for clin­i­cal tri­als.

“The Con­trolled Sub­stances Act was passed, and I thought, ‘Oh, well there goes that [idea],” Nichols told End­point News.

Now half a cen­tu­ry lat­er, Johns Hop­kins Med­i­cine is open­ing up the na­tion’s first ma­jor cen­ter for psy­che­del­ic re­search, a $17 mil­lion, pri­vate­ly-backed bet that re­flects a 20-year-long sea change in how psy­che­del­ic re­search is viewed by clin­i­cians and the promise the drugs have shown in treat­ing a host of psy­chi­atric dis­or­ders. The Cen­ter for Psy­che­del­ic and Con­scious­ness Re­search at Johns Hop­kins Med­i­cine will al­so ex­plore the drugs’ im­pact on cre­ativ­i­ty and well-be­ing.

“Oh, it’s huge,” says Nichols, who as a pro­fes­sor at Pur­due Uni­ver­si­ty be­came one of the on­ly psy­che­del­ic re­searchers (he fo­cused on an­i­mals) and one of the top ad­vo­cates for re­open­ing clin­i­cal tri­als dur­ing the three-plus decades the drugs were al­most en­tire­ly mar­gin­al­ized. “Where mon­ey has been the ob­sta­cle, now mon­ey is no longer the prob­lem.”

Af­ter years in the side­lines, psy­che­delics  be­gan­to creep back in­to the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal imag­i­na­tion in 2000, when Johns Hop­kins ob­tained ap­proval to ad­min­is­ter psy­che­delics to healthy hu­man sub­jects.

Sci­en­tists at a hand­ful of promi­nent in­sti­tu­tions have since en­tered the field, con­duct­ing tri­als on how psy­che­delics can treat long-in­tractable dis­or­ders – some­times with dra­mat­ic suc­cess: psilo­cy­bin (the chem­i­cal found in mag­ic mush­rooms) for ad­dic­tion and a slew of ail­ments, LSD for de­pres­sion, MD­MA for PTSD.

Ear­ly re­sults have ap­peared as a panacea to psy­chi­atric pa­tients who have gone years on SS­RIs and oth­er treat­ments with­out sig­nif­i­cant im­prove­ment and opened the door to a string of star­tups seek­ing to ad­vance and cap­i­tal­ize on the emerg­ing mar­ket. Re­searchers tout­ed the re­sults of one pair of NYU and Hop­kins stud­ies on psilo­cy­bin to treat “ex­is­ten­tial dread” in can­cer pa­tients as “mind-blow­ing,”

“I think we’re look­ing at a par­a­digm shift,” says Nichols, who found­ed the Heffter Re­search In­sti­tute in 1993 to ad­vo­cate for and even­tu­al­ly fund clin­i­cal tri­als. “I think it’ll be a rev­o­lu­tion­ary change for peo­ple who suf­fer from these dis­or­ders. We didn’t have any­thing that worked un­til now.”

Re­searchers char­ac­ter­ized the cen­ter as a sign of how main­stream the field has be­come and an an­nounce­ment that will on­ly le­git­imize it fur­ther.

But im­me­di­ate­ly, the mon­ey will fu­el sev­er­al clin­i­cal tri­als at Hop­kins – in­clud­ing those for opi­oid ad­dic­tion, Alzheimer’s dis­ease, PTSD and co-oc­cur­ring mood and al­co­hol prob­lems – equip­ping sci­en­tists with funds that re­main scarce for psy­che­del­ic re­search.

Al­most all psy­che­delics are still Sched­ule I drugs, mean­ing of­fi­cial­ly they have “no cur­rent­ly ac­cept­ed med­ical use” and the NIH will not fund stud­ies on them. The prob­lem has plagued the field since its resur­gence.

Al­bert Gar­cia Johns Hop­kins

“Usu­al­ly sci­ence is a lot of beg­ging for mon­ey,” Al­bert Gar­cia, who will lead the Hop­kins Alzheimer’s study, told End­points News, “and this means we won’t have to do that for a cou­ple years at least.”

The fu­ture be­yond clin­i­cal tri­als re­mains murky, though, and the ex­u­ber­ance of some re­searchers and ad­vo­cates has led to push­back by crit­ics of the sci­ence (psy­che­del­ic stud­ies are nec­es­sar­i­ly not dou­ble-blind) and those, in­clud­ing health writer and pro­po­nent of psy­che­del­ic re­search Michael Pol­lan, who say ad­vo­cates for mag­ic mush­room de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion send a mes­sage that the drugs are not dan­ger­ous.

“This is not some sort of mag­ic bul­let that will be solv­ing all these men­tal health prob­lems,” Gar­cia said.

In March, the FDA ap­proved its first psy­che­del­ic drug: Es­ke­t­a­mine for treat­ing de­pres­sion. And in 2017 and 2018, the agency grant­ed break­through sta­tus to an MD­MA pro­to­col for treat­ing PTSD and to UK start­up Com­pass Path­ways’ psilo­cy­bin pro­to­col for treat­ing de­pres­sion. But there’s been lit­tle in­di­ca­tion of change to the un­der­ly­ing fed­er­al law.

Sim­i­lar ques­tions re­main about pre­cise­ly how these drugs would come to mar­ket, es­pe­cial­ly as the field has caught the eye of in­vestors in Sil­i­con Val­ley and Eu­rope. The list of Hop­kins donors in­cludes TOMS founder Blake My­coskie and pop­u­lar en­tre­pre­neur Tim Fer­riss but oth­er in­vestors have fun­neled mon­ey in­to pri­vate, for-prof­it ven­tures like Com­pass and ATAI.

In­g­mar Gor­man

“Scal­ing and ac­ces­si­bil­i­ty of treat­ments are ques­tions on every­one’s mind at the mo­ment,” In­g­mar Gor­man, di­rec­tor of the Psy­che­del­ic Ed­u­ca­tion and Con­tin­u­ing Care Pro­gram at the Cen­ter for Op­ti­mal Liv­ing and co-prin­ci­pal in­ves­ti­ga­tor on a stage III MD­MA study for treat­ing PTSD, told End­points News in an email.

Psy­che­delics such as psilo­cy­bin won’t op­er­ate on the pill-a-day for­mu­la that dom­i­nates most cur­rent psy­chi­atrics. Rather, a pa­tient would go in a few times per year to re­ceive dos­es in a con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment with med­ical pro­fes­sion­als. It’s un­clear yet what the costs would be, though Nichols and oth­ers are op­ti­mistic wide­spread knowl­edge of how to man­u­fac­ture psilo­cy­bin, for in­stance, will make it dif­fi­cult to patent and keep prices down.

Eka­te­ri­na Malievska­ia Com­pass

Last year, Com­pass Path­ways made head­lines af­ter in­sid­ers ac­cused them in Quartz of try­ing to form a mo­nop­oly on the glob­al sup­ply of psilo­cy­bin. They de­nied the charges but said se­cur­ing a large sup­ply was es­sen­tial to their busi­ness mod­el of in­te­grat­ing their ther­a­pies sys­tems.

They told End­points they weren’t a psy­che­del­ic com­pa­ny, but sim­ply look­ing for the best ways to tack­le men­tal health prob­lems.

“Right now, I don’t see any­thing more promis­ing than re­search in psy­che­delics,” says CIO and co-founder Eka­te­ri­na Malievska­ia. “But things can change.”

Tal Zaks, Moderna CMO (Moderna via YouTube)

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The NIAID and Moderna have spelled out positive Phase I safety and efficacy data for their Covid-19 vaccine mRNA-1273 — highlighting the first full, clear sketch of evidence that back-to-back jabs at the dose selected for Phase III routinely produced a swarm of antibodies to the virus that exceeded levels seen in convalescent patients — typically in multiples indicating a protective response.

Moderna execs say plainly that this first stage of research produced exactly the kind of efficacy they hoped to see in humans, with a manageable safety profile.

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Trans­port Sim­u­la­tion Test­ing for Your Ther­a­py is the Best Way to As­sure FDA Ex­pe­dit­ed Pro­gram Ap­proval

Modality Solutions is an ISO:9001-registered biopharmaceutical cold chain engineering firm with unique transport simulation capabilities that support accelerated regulatory approval for biologics and advanced therapeutic medicinal products (ATMP). Our expertise combines traditional validation engineering approaches with regulatory knowledge into a methodology tailored for the life sciences industry. We provide insight and execution for the challenges faced in your cold chain logistics network.

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Mene Pangalos, AstraZeneca R&D chief (AstraZeneca via YouTube)

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ITV’s Robert Peston reported that AstraZeneca will publish the Phase I data in The Lancet. 

AstraZeneca and Moderna represent the two most ambitious Covid-19 vaccine efforts, having set the quickest timelines for approval (though they were recently joined in that regard by the Pfizer-BioNTech partnership) and some of the loftiest goals in total doses. Yet there is even less known about AstraZeneca’s vaccine’s effect on humans than there was about Moderna’s before yesterday. Although, in a controversial move, Moderna released some statistics from its Phase I in May, AstraZeneca has yet to say anything about what it saw in its Phase I trial — a move consistent with the scientific convention to withhold data until it can be published in a peer-reviewed journal.

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The Merck KGgA life science subsidiary announced Wednesday its intentions to build a new $20 million lab in Buchs, Switzerland to support its reference materials business. It’s estimated that the new facility will be completed in December 2021 and open in early 2022 and is expected to be 12,000 square feet.

Stéphane Bancel, Moderna CEO (Steven Ferdman/Getty Images)

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