Within the next decade, lyseric acid diethylamide, better known as LSD, and psilocybin, the active psychedelic compound in magic mushrooms, MDMA, the psychoactive chemical in Ecstasy, and other illegal hallucinogens could become legitimate medications prescribed by a doctor to treat depression, end-of-life anxiety, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and even alcoholism, according to doctors conducting Food and Drug Association-approved clinical trials on these drugs.
The results show promise, says Dr. Stephen Ross, the director of addiction psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center, but because these drugs are illegal, the U.S. government will not fund research. To raise those needed funds, entrepreneur Rodrigo Niño has launched Fundamental, a crowdfunding platform that allows people to fund psychedelic research in an effort to develop FDA-approved therapies.
Donors can fund Dr. Michael Bogenschutz, who is researching psilocybin as a treatment for addiction at NYU; Amanda Feilding, a veteran LSD researcher, whose clinical study with London Imperial College's psychopharmacologist David Nutt will research if microdoses of LSD could increase productivity and creativity (micodosing LSD has become a favorite Silicon Valley productivity hack); and Dr. Rick Doblin, the founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, who is negotiating with the FDA to start a Phase III clinical trial on MDMA-assisted therapy to treat PTSD. After reviewing data from Doblin's Phase II trial, the FDA recommended that the researchers to move on to Phase III to try to prove the safety and efficacy of the drug.
"By 2021, MDMA-assisted therapy will be an FDA-approved therapy for PTSD," says Doblin.
Niño's day job is running the Prodigy Network, an equity crowdfunding platform that has raised $424 million from accredited investors to buy and develop commercial real estate in New York. He became interested in the medical use of psychedelics in 2011, when he was diagnosed with stage III melanoma and his doctor said he had a slim chance of survival.
Niño, who was 41 at the time, says he was stricken with anxiety because he realized he was going to die soon. He was prescribed pharmaceutical drugs, but the crippling fear remained, he says. Niño researched alternative medicines that could help him cope, which led him to the Peruvian jungle. In the Amazon, outside the port city of Iquitos, Niño says he sat with a shaman who administered ayahuasca, an ancient hallucinogenic tea that contains DMT, the powerful psychedelic compound.
"After my experience with ayahuasca, my fear of dying was completely gone," says Niño.
Niño says he was convinced the ancient medicine helped him, but he thought it could've been a placebo effect so he dove into research when he got home. While researching online, Niño came across Dr. Ross's FDA-approved clinical trials with psilocybin and cancer patients.
Ross says he believes psychedelics hold the power to usher in a new mental health paradigm. Instead of taking a pill everyday, Ross imagines a future where patients with depression, addiction, or PTSD could go to a licensed therapist twice or three times a year for psychedelic-assisted sessions. Over 2,000 doses have been given to patients in a controlled setting over the last 15 years by Ross and his colleagues at NYU, Johns Hopkins, and elsewhere. Ross says there has not been one death, hospitalization or a serious medical issue.
According to the results of Ross's research on how psilocybin can help ease end-of-life anxiety and depression in distressed cancer patients, which was published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, a single dose of psilocybin, coupled with therapy, dramatically reduced depression and anxiety in 80 percent of test subjects for six months. Ross says while psychedelics show promise, he does not want to make the same mistakes the researchers studying LSD and psilocybin in the 1950s and 1960s made by proclaiming these molecules are miracle drugs. If patients are sufficiently screened for mental health conditions, psychedelics can helpful when administered in a safe, clinical setting, he says. But, if used irresponsibly, psychedelics can be dangerous.
"Psilocybin will never be a take-home medication," says Ross. If psilocybin becomes a prescription medication, it would be administered by licensed therapists in a psychedelic research center, Ross says.
The psychedelic renaissance was jumpstarted by Roland Griffiths, a professor of behavioral biology at Johns Hopkins, in 2006 when he published an influential paper about the meaningful spiritual experiences patients go through while on psilocybin. Charles Grob, of UCLA , was the first to conduct an FDA-approved clinical trial to test the safety and efficacy of psilocybin. Now, after a community of respected doctors, scientists, and professors have spent a decade conducting research, a future of new pharmaceutical drugs could be on the horizon.
"These drugs are not like traditional pharmaceutical medications--you take a psychedelic once and the benefits last for months," says Niño, citing Ross's published research and clinical trials. "As a society, I feel like we have a moral obligation to fund research to see if we can treat conditions that Big Pharma has been unsuccessful in treating."
Niño, who says he is currently in remission, says that Fundamental, a nonprofit, launched this week and has raised $8,518 since Tuesday, May 9.