Jeeshan Chowdhury, CEO of Journey, says these drugs are powerful tools, likening them to performing complex surgeries. “The surgery is performed in a safe environment in specialist facilities by highly experienced teams,” he said. “We aim to demonstrate that rehabilitation centers … are the safest place for these interventions.”
Altman’s foray into psychedelics shows the buzz the drugs have generated in Silicon Valley, with venture capitalists betting millions that such therapies will transform treatment of mental disorders and substance abuse. Since 2019, when the Food and Drug Administration approved a variant of ketamine to treat depression, companies developing psychedelic drugs or related services have raised more than $560 million in venture capital, according to the data provider. PitchBook.
Spravato, a ketamine-derived nasal spray, remains the only psychedelic drug approved for depression, but several candidates have started or completed late-stage clinical trials. MDMA and psilocybin have been granted “breakthrough” status by the FDA, a designation that expedites the development of drugs that show “substantial improvement” over available therapies.
“There has been a sober reassessment of what our current treatments are capable of,” said Brian Barnett, assistant professor of psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic. Citing the lack of innovation in psychiatry and the nasty side effects of existing drugs, he said, “that’s what led to psychedelics being given another look.”
Classic psychedelic drugs – like psilocybin, mescaline and LSD – can readjust brain activity by activating receptors for serotonin, a chemical that plays a role in mood regulation, and leaving the brain more open to different perspectives, depending on the research. Although their potential as a medicine was recognized decades ago, the drugs were also used recreationally and fell out of favor in 1970 when the Controlled Substances Act criminalized them.
The Drug Enforcement Administration places MDMA and psilocybin, known by their street names “Ecstasy” and “magic mushrooms,” in the most restrictive category of drugs it regulates as having “no currently accepted medical uses.” potential than opioids, which belong to a less restrictive class of drugs, according to the researchers.
As studies validated the promise of psychedelics, the regulatory landscape also began to change. Oregon legalized psilocybin in 2020 and is in the process of licensing facilities providing such care, while Colorado passed a ballot measure last year that will allow adults to use psilocybin in licensed facilities. starting in 2024. Sen. Cory Booker (DN.J.) and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) proposed legislation last month that would remove regulatory hurdles for certain psychedelics used in research.
The new momentum has inspired a proliferation of companies betting on a psychedelic future — but one that carries the risks of raising enough money and convincing regulators to greenlight substances whose use is still largely illegal.
Among the biggest players is London-based Compass Pathways PLC, which has taken the conventional biotech strategy of modifying naturally existing psilocybin into a patentable drug and putting it through clinical trials. The company, founded in 2020, had a market value of $2 billion in November 2021, but its shares have since fallen 80%.
Small Pharma, a small Canadian start-up that modifies psychedelic DMT to treat depression, recently revealed promising results from a study that failed to excite investors. “These results are extremely promising but they had no effect on the share price, zero,” said Jan Hardorp, founding partner of venture capital firm re.Mind Capital which invested in the company. .
The leader in bringing psychedelics to market is, in an unusual twist, a nonprofit called the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies that has raised more than $130 million since its founding in 1986. MAPS, as it goes ‘calls, has taken MDMA – a synthetic compound that is patent disabled – through late-stage clinical trials for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and is preparing to file for FDA approval more late this year.
MAPS has exclusive rights to data supporting MDMA, preventing generic competition for at least five years, and has a for-profit subsidiary to manage the launch if approved. Amy Emerson, CEO of the utility subsidiary, said it is focused on ensuring insurers cover the drug, developing billing codes for the therapy and training clinicians to administer it.
“All of these things are a heavyweight,” she said. “How can we make sure there is access? »
That same question irked Altman, president of Journey Colab and former president of start-up accelerator Y Combinator, where his job was to notice “undervalued technology.” This is how he began to study MDMA to treat PTSD.
“I remember looking at it thinking, ‘This can’t be real, this is too beautiful,'” he recalled in an interview.
Altman is best known these days as spearheading a revolution in artificial intelligence, spearheading the company that mesmerized and baffled much of the public with the release of a chatbot that could, in one wink, produce human-like text. But he still sees unrealized potential in psychedelics and has enthusiastically supported Journey’s mission.
“I don’t think anyone has yet figured out ‘what the business of psychedelic medicine will be like -‘ how it’s going to make economic sense, and how we’re going to ensure it’s going to be a good and safe experience for people.” He added: “Hopefully Journey, with this new approach, finds something that actually works.”
He confides the details to Chowdhury, a Rhodes Scholar and doctor turned entrepreneur, who came to psychedelics through his own mental health issues and saved his life. Chowdhury freely acknowledges that he does not yet have a business model, but envisions Journey becoming a specialist service, providing psychedelic care to patients in rehabilitation clinics in the same way wound care specialists are hired by hospitals.
For starters, he said, Journey is partnering with companies conducting clinical trials for MDMA and psilocybin to run them at a rehabilitation center near Vail, Colorado.
The center, operated by All Points North, markets itself as a luxury rehabilitation destination, offering high-end services like hyperbaric oxygen therapy and catering to professional athletes. He also has a contract to look after veterans, according to general manager Noah Nordheimer, who said the clientele ranges from “middle income to upper”.
Journey Colab has focused on making psychedelic therapy accessible to marginalized communities – it has set aside 10% of its founding capital in a trust to benefit Native American groups – but focuses on providing care first. with all the support available in an establishment like All Points Nord.
Chowdhury explains the strategy using an analogy made in Silicon Valley. Journey is “building the Tesla Roadster to try to get into Model 3,” he said, referring to Tesla’s premium and consumer electric vehicles, respectively. “We’re starting in an environment where we have the support to be able to do that,” he said, and “will apply that as a model to other centers.”