The Selfish Trip — Psychedelics, Science and Social Justice
I am new to the psychedelic ecosystem. When I meet or listen to company founders, activists, investors and other players in this nascent sector speak, their first words are invariably about how psychedelics have touched their lives or the lives of those close to them, for the better. This encounter with psychedelics was invariably at a time of great personal psychic pain or when facing severe health issues such as cancer.
I must admit that my personal experience with psychedelics is very limited and I have noticed that I as I hear these stories, largely ones of relative privilege involving trips to the Amazon and meticulously accompanied therapeutic sessions in comfortable surroundings, I have started to have disturbing images flash through my mind, that hamper my attempts to empathize with the speakers. These images are of homeless veterans racked with addiction, immigrant health care workers tortured by PTSD due to their brave work during the novel coronavirus pandemic and families driven to despair and destitution as their loved ones battle treatment-resistant depression and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). A question starts to intrude — will the prevailing paradigm of trip-based, accompanied hallucinogen therapy ever be able to make a real contribution to substantially reducing the global burden of psychiatric disease? And if not, what are the implications in terms of psychedelics making their rightful contribution to a better and more socially just planet?
There is no need debate the role of psychedelics in mental health and wellness. The efficacy data is unequivocal and perhaps more importantly for the regulators such as the FDA, there are no brick walls in terms of safety. So, from a therapeutic development perspective, the light is green. But, I believe that the current investor focus on the more profitable and eminently easier end of the psychedelics “value chain” — psychedelic assisted psychotherapy with its clinics and expensive and complex treatment protocols — will do little to move psychedelics into the biomedical mainstream where effective, sustainable and accessible therapies will be available to tens of millions and not just a privileged few.
Some will argue that proposing a more classical early drug development pathway for psychedelics is impractical, slow and doomed to failure. This argument is partly justified by the fact that we are dealing with a class of therapies that are painted with the “counter-culture, snake oil” brush. We have all witnessed the incredulous smiles of the uninitiated when we tell them about our interest or work in the psychedelics space. But psychedelics are classical natural products and most of our effective drugs emanate in some way or another from nature. Next, we are faced with the skeptics who tell us that the global pharmaceutical giants will never touch psychedelics (notwithstanding the early history of psilocybin and LSD, but that goes back almost 80 years). Rather than argue about the intricacies of pharmaceutical business development strategy, skeptics should remember that Genentech and Amgen were once small biotechnology companies that transitioned basic natural science discoveries from the laboratory into blockbuster drugs. Yes, with resources and people, we can indeed leverage the remarkable advances in characterization, target identification, computational biology and high-throughput screening technologies to move fast, especially for unmet needs such as treatment-resistant depression and PTSD. We should recognize the work of organizations such as the Usona Institute and a handful of academic researchers that are indeed rapidly advancing our basic science understanding of psychedelics.
We are at the start of the “psychedelics goldrush”. Our principal mycologists, Tony and Jay, witnessed the evolution of the cannabis industry over the past 20 years and often remind me that at the end of the day, the true innovators, the pioneers in cannabis cultivation and R&D, have gone unrecognized and unrewarded. While there are many differences between the evolution of the cannabis and psychedelics sector, I wonder about the balance between public health impact and profit as psychedelics slowly emerge from a regulatory and legal penumbra and whether all the good words and sentiments that proliferate in the psychedelics space are just a cover for a cynical “business as usual” approach.
It is against this backdrop that we have chosen what ostensibly seems to be the hard and long road — deploying the combination of cellular agriculture, computational biology and pre-clinical technologies for the discovery and development of safe, effective, active psychedelic molecules. We believe that this approach opens the doors to being able to test psychedelics in community settings, and to make a wider range of mycelial, plant and animal psychoactive molecules (entheogens) available for clinical development.
The first psychedelics investment train, focused on the treatment delivery end of the value chain, is leaving the station, and its unlikely that many of us focused on the rational biopharmaceutical development pathway will be offered a seat. This train may travel far, but I doubt that it will ever reach the station of sustainable and equitable access of psychedelics-based therapeutics for the planet. My team is headed back to its R&D and pre-clinical program and will await the next train where we hope we will joined by dozens of entheogen-focused biotechnology companies working with a common goal of bringing this amazing gift from nature to all those who need it most.
Leonard Lerer MD MBA is founder and CEO of Back of the Yards Algae Sciences, a Chicago biotechnology company focused on sustainable, algae-based innovation to meet our planet’s health and nutrition challenges.