A New Age of Aquarius

Nothing should surprise us these days.

By Dave Trecker

Even the unlikelihood of psychedelic drugs making a comeback. And they are making a comeback. The mood boosting drugs of the Allen Ginsberg days are close to becoming downright respectable.

Close is the operable word.

Big Pharma isn’t convinced, and investors are few and far between. But academic labs and a few startups are pushing ahead. We’re talking about old friends like LSD and psilocybin of “magic mushroom” fame and relative newcomers like MDMA, otherwise known as ecstasy, a big party drug.

The history is a colorful one. Some of us oldsters remember Timothy Leary, a counterculture figure, testing psilocybin on Harvard students in 1960. There is no record of clinical controls. Things went local a few years ago when two Florida legislators sought state funding to evaluate some hallucinogens. That went nowhere, of course, but the advocacy remained.

Today startups financed by billionaire believers are chasing “interventional psychiatry,” hoping that some mental health disorders can be lessened by treatment with the Woodstock drugs.

Cybin, Compass Pathways and Atai Life Sciences are a few of the struggling startups. Nonprofits are also in the game. MAPS Public Benefit Corp. just filed for FDA approval of MDMA to reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some big companies are also playing. Johnson & Johnson has been touting Spravato, a chemically modified ketamine approved by the FDA in 2019 for treating depression.

Other than that, psychedelics cannot be legally used for medical purposes.

“That’s a shame,” says David Nutt, a prominent British neuropsychopharmacologist. “Denying access to psychedelics is like denying access to the COVID vaccine.”

But providing that access is a tough go. There aren’t many incentives.

First off, patent protection is difficult. The old counterculture drugs have been around for a long time. Structurally there’s nothing novel about them. Use protection is possible only after costly clinical testing. And, if you modify them chemically to broaden patent coverage, you still need lengthy trials.

Second, the benefit/risk ratio is low. A reduction in anxiety maybe offset by whacked-out, can’t-get-off-the-couch hallucinations.

Third, the psychedelic has to be administered by a psychiatric professional. You can’t just go to a pharmacy and buy some pills.

In spite of these hurdles, research is continuing. There’s a belief that, if marijuana can provide medical benefits, its more potent cousins should be able to as well, while delivering handsome profits along the way.

The biochemical pathway of psychedelics is well known, involving binding to 5-HT2A receptors in the brain. If you could chemically modify the drug to alter that binding and, as a result, confer the benefit without the side effects, you might have a winner.

Delix Therapeutics, a California-based startup, is trying to do just that. It has synthesized thousands of molecules in eight classes of psychedelics and has begun testing the most promising candidates.

In the meantime, a number of states (though not yet Florida) have cleared the way with legislation decriminalizing the drugs and in some cases even paying for trials.

More good news is coming from academic studies, some of the best being carried out at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. Their focus has been on psilocybin, the active ingredient in the “fearsome fungus.” In trials over a 10year period, psilocybin has been shown to

  • Curtail alcohol abuse
  • Help addicted smokers kick the habit
  • Provide long-term relief in treatment of depression

Real progress is being made.

Old timers say some of this was foreseen in the 1967 musical “Hair.” How so? Through lyrics promoting “harmony and understanding” and hope the reborn drugs would lead us to a new “Age of Aquarius.”

Or, better yet, to some new medicines.

Dr. Trecker is a chemist and retired Pfizer executive living in Naples.

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