Clinical research using psychedelic drugs is quickly becoming mainstream. Prestigious universities like Imperial College London and John Hopkins University are studying the field, while UK-founded psychedelic treatment company Compass Pathways recently listed on the US stock exchange.
Among the current wave of interest in psychedelic therapies, ecstasy, ketamine, and psilocybin (the psychoactive compound found in so-called “magic mushrooms”) have so far dominated research.
But Oxford-based startup Beckley Psytech has today raised $80m to accelerate clinical trials using a pharmaceutical formulation of 5-MeO-DMT, a powerful compound produced endogenously by the Sonoran Desert toad, to treat depression.
The funding round, which Beckley Psytech describes as “upsized and oversubscribed”, was led by Integrated, and joined by Prime Movers Labs, Adage Capital Management LP, Palo Santo, Delphi VC, Leafy Tunnel, Negev Capital, and existing investor Bicycle Day Ventures.
The power of the toad
So what has got investors so excited about the mind-bending secretion of this humble toad?
Beckley Psytech chief executive Cosmo Fielding Mellen told Sifted that the company is focussing on 5-MeO-DMT for two reasons: it’s potency and its short length of psychedelic experience.
Clinical studies using psilocybin have already shown huge potential to address treatment resistant depression, by administering the drug during a session with a therapist. But while a psilocybin experience can last between five and eight hours, a 5-MeO-DMT session takes just one hour, which could radically reduce the cost of treatment.
“Requiring a therapist to sit with a patient for the entire duration of a psilocybin, MDMA or LSD experience which is, say, six to eight to 10 hours long, is going to be resource intensive and expensive,” says Fielding Mellen.
“What we're trying to show is that we can induce similar levels of treatment response with 5-MeO-DMT that you're seeing with psilocybin, but the treatment takes an hour rather than a day. If you can do that then there's a huge patient access advantage.”
Fielding Mellen adds that 5-MeO-DMT is an attractive compound to study for therapeutic use, as it produces less visual effects then psilocybin or LSD, which he says can distract the patient from the aims of the therapy session.
Beckley Psytech’s fresh injection of funding will also be used to accelerate early trials investigating whether psilocybin can be used to treat patients suffering with SUNHA, a rare and debilitating headache condition.
The company has developed a pharmaceutical formulation of psilocybin, which it intends to give to patients at low, sub-hallucinogenic dosages in a daily treatment schedule.
This, again, would bring down the cost of using psychedelic compounds for therapeutic treatments, as it wouldn’t require a therapist to be present.
Fielding Mellen says Beckley Psytech will also continue working to develop new psychedelic chemical compounds for novel applications: “You tweak the molecular structure to try and refine their clinical effects by dialling up certain receptor binding profiles and dialling down other receptor binding profiles.”
This final area of study is the furthest from actually reaching patients, but with this new injection of capital a future of lab-made, designer psychedelic therapies is looking more and more likely.