It is secreted by the Sonoran Desert Toad and mainly used in shamanic rituals, but a UK medtech company believes a psychedelic drug could also be an effective treatment for depression. 

Beckley Psytech has convinced some well-known investors, too. It has just raised a £3m Series A round from backers including Innocent Drinks founder Richard Reed and Jim Mellon, a billionaire angel investor who also invests in ‘juvenescence’ — ways to help us lead extra-long lives.

If you think the idea of turning shamanic medicines into mainstream, licensed drugs sounds a little far fetched, take a look at the recent success of the cannabis industry. Since 2018, cannabis has been grown for medicinal purposes in the UK, CBD (cannabidiol) products have exploded in popularity worldwide and VC investors pumped more than $2bn into the sector in 2019.

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Psychedelic drugs could be next. In April Compass Pathways, another UK-based company, raised $80m to expand its research into using psilocybin (the hallucinogenic substance in magic mushrooms) as a treatment for depression. Beckley Psytech, meanwhile, is researching a psychedelic compound called 5-MeO-DMT, which it thinks could be used to treat neuropsychiatric diseases, like depression and addiction.

Sifted spoke to cofounder and CEO of Beckley Psytech, Cosmo Feilding Mellen, about what comes next. 

What is 5-MeO-DMT?

Beckley Psytech’s lead programme is focused on a synthetic version of 5-MeO-DMT, a short-acting psychedelic found in the secretions of the Sonoran Desert Toad and a variety of plant species, which has been used as a shamanic medicine by indigenous peoples of South America for centuries. Its effects are reported to last under an hour and induce profound altered states of consciousness with significant therapeutic potential, but robust clinical evidence is currently lacking. 

We are producing a synthetic, pharmaceutical-quality formulation of 5-MeO-DMT and plan to conduct the first-ever regulatory-standard clinical study with this drug in humans, with the aim of developing this into a licensed pharmaceutical medicine for patients suffering from debilitating neuropsychiatric diseases.

The Sonaran Desert Toad
Sounds a bit wacky. Is it proven to work?

Gravity was considered a wacky idea once too… Beckley Psytech’s founders have been pioneering psychedelic research for over 20 years and we’ve been involved in pushing this subject from obscurity (and even derision) to mainstream scientific credibility, to the point that the FDA has recently approved one psychedelic drug (esketamine) and granted breakthrough status to two more psychedelic drugs in development.

Our lead compound, 5-MeO-DMT, has been used widely in recreational and ceremonial settings, and there is considerable anecdotal and observational evidence that the drug is non-addictive and can be effective at treating debilitating diseases such as depression and addiction. The risk/benefit profile appears positive. Our plan now is to prove this in placebo-controlled clinical trials so that health authorities can approve Beckley Psytech’s pharmaceutical formulation of 5-MeO-DMT as a licensed medicine for patients in need.  

Is it legal? If so, where?

Like most psychedelic drugs, 5-MeO-DMT is a controlled drug and its use is prohibited in most parts of the world unless you are in possession of a controlled drugs licence granted by national regulators.

In other words, while most use of 5-MeO-DMT in recreational and ceremonial settings is illegal, Beckley Psytech’s pharmaceutical drug development approach means we (and/or our partners) will possess all the necessary licences to produce, formulate, and research 5-MeO-DMT legally. Developing controlled drugs is a complicated process, but our team has a lot of expertise in this area, having previously conducted licensed research on a range of controlled drugs such as cannabis, psilocybin and LSD. Provided the drug works and can be safely prescribed the transition to legality and appropriate restrictions are addressed during the drug licensing process.

What do investors make of it?

It helps that our founding team recently had a very successful exit (Canopy Growth Corporation, the largest cannabis company globally, acquired our drug development company Beckley Canopy Therapeutics last year) which left us with a lot of very happy investors. 

Compass Pathways, which has made a psilocybin depression drug, raised $80m in April. Are they a competitor?

We know Compass and their research well. Beckley Psytech’s cofounder Amanda Feilding was involved in the first-ever clinical research into psilocybin as a treatment for resistant depression back in 2016, before Compass had got started.

We are focused on differentiated research programmes and we don’t see Compass as a competitor. We’re a very mission-driven company and we want to see these potentially transformative medicines become available to patients in need so we wish Compass (and anyone else conducting high-quality research in this area) every success. Indeed their success should be a benefit to our own project.

How big is this market?

Neuropsychiatric disorders are on their way to becoming the single largest disease burden globally. Let me throw some numbers at you: in 2010 the World Economic Forum estimated the global cost of mental illness was $2.5tn and that’s predicted to more than double by 2030; there are over 1bn people suffering from these disorders; and it’s estimated that $50bn per year is spent on prescription drugs for depression alone. 

“It’s estimated that $50bn per year is spent on prescription drugs for depression alone.”

In other words, if psychedelics such as 5-MeO-DMT are proven to be effective treatments for specific neuropsychiatric diseases it would represent a hugely important development for patients in need as well as a huge market opportunity. In the wake of Covid-19, this is likely to be true now more than ever.

Who do you sell this stuff to?

Good question. Ultimately these drugs will be prescribed by appropriately qualified physicians and paid for by health care systems who see the value of the drug in the context of patient benefit. 

‘Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy’ is a promising approach to treating psychiatric disease where the medicine is administered in a clinic setting with appropriate safeguards in place. Prior to the treatment session patients undergo preparatory psychotherapy and the therapist remains with the patient throughout the session. Integration psychotherapy follows the treatment session.

Once psychedelic medicines are approved by health authorities, then healthcare resources and in particular the availability of psychotherapists will be a key consideration in determining patient access. This is one of the reasons we have chosen to develop 5-MeO-DMT as it is a shorter acting psychedelic and could provide considerable patient access and resource efficiency advantages over other longer acting psychedelics, like psilocybin.

With novel treatments like this, it must be challenging to build trust. How are you tackling that?

We believe that scientific evidence is the most powerful tool to break down prejudice and build trust. If we can conduct pharmaceutical-standard clinical trials proving that 5-MeO-DMT is safe and effective for patients with high unmet needs, then that’s pretty hard to argue against. We will publish all our clinical trials regardless of outcome and will remain patient focused throughout.

“Scientific evidence is the most powerful tool to break down prejudice and build trust.”

On top of that we’re working with very respected scientists from some of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world, like Oxford University, Johns Hopkins and Imperial College London. When the FDA and the top academic researchers in the world are behind psychedelic medicine that sends a very strong message to the wider world.

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