Ecstasy, for example, was accidentally discovered, and patented, by Darmstadt-based Merck in 1912. Clinical trials into its use in treating PTSD and other conditions are now being conducted by a non-profit organisation.
But, as with medical cannabis, some investors think they can monetise the drugs. Take Compass Pathways, a UK company backed by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and Atai Life Sciences, a German biotech company partly owned by former Fortress hedge fund manager and cryptocurrency investor Michael Novogratz. The company won a “breakthrough therapy” designation from US regulators in 2018 for its psilocybin therapy for treatment-resistant depression.
It hopes it could go on sale within five years.
Cash-strapped public health systems, which mostly treat depression with cheap generic pills, may balk at the cost and complexity of administering the drugs, which needs to be done by experienced therapists. There are serious safety worries. Illegal hallucinogens have been blamed for doing irreparable mental damage to some users. Bad publicity could stop further research.
That has happened before. Before the 1970s, psychedelic drugs were used in psychiatry to treat depression, anxiety and addiction. That stopped with the US-led “war on drugs”.
Regulators, investors and researchers should be careful not to provoke a backlash. The unmet need in mental health is huge. If psychedelics can reduce that misery, the benefits would be mind-blowing.