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Psychedelic drug startups want to help solve the mental health crisis. The stories of patients are compelling

May 11, 2022, 7:55 PM UTC

Nearly 1 billion people around the world suffer from mental health issues.

“It’s an enormous problem that we’re facing and this number will only grow with the impact of the pandemic,” Florian Brand, cofounder and CEO of ATAI Life Sciences, a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company, said at Fortune‘s Brainstorm Health conference

What’s worsening the problem is the “tremendous lack of innovation in psychiatric treatment,” added Brand. “Only seven neuropsychiatric drugs have been approved since 2015, while the field of oncology has seen approvals of 80 drugs.” 

But recent studies showing great promise in psychedelics are prompting startups to develop new health drugs in the space. Venture capitalists are also taking note.

Dr. Carolyn Rodriguez from the Stanford University School of Medicine explained that traditional treatment methods from Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac and cognitive behavioral therapy don’t always work for some patients.

Psychedelics are showing immense potential as an antidote for those who are suffering. Rodriguez shared the story of a young patient called John who suffered from OCD and intrusive thoughts that damaged his academic life and personal relationships. 

“He was not able to function,” she said. 

Countless people like John are resistant to first-line treatments and psychedelics like Ketamine may be an option for relief, she said. Dr. Rodriguez performed the first randomized, controlled proof-of-concept study of Ketamine in low doses through IV infusion in OCD patients. 

“Within hours, half the patients reported a decrease of OCD symptoms. One even said that it felt like a vacation from their OCD,” she recalled. 

ATAI cofounder Brand had similar findings with the use of psychedelics in depressed patients. He told Fortune that psychedelics don’t need to be chronically dosed like traditional SSRIs and can achieve rapid-acting antidepressant effects that can last for weeks and even months with just a single high dose.

He shared the story of his friend and cofounder of ATAI, who suffered from severe depression despite trying countless pharmaceutical options and psychotherapy approaches. His friend was then introduced to a medical study led by John Hopkins and the Imperial College of London, which showed the promise of Psilocybin in treating depression, and after trying it for himself, he was able to process his traumatic experiences and finally kickstart his road to recovery.

Neil Markey, cofounder and CEO of Beckley Retreats, started his company after dealing with mental health issues as a result of serving in the special operations unit of the U.S. Army. 

“I realized how bad my mental health was and I tried a lot of different Western approaches and none of them really worked,” Markey said.

But his first experience with a psychedelic called Psilocybin 10 years ago changed everything. 

“It was transformational,” he said.

After seeing improvements in his own mental health, Markey started Beckley Retreats with backing from Amanda Fielding, a researcher who’s been dubbed the “Queen of the Psychedelic Science Renaissance.” Beckley Retreats offers an 11-week transformation program with two Psilocybin ceremonies in Jamaica, where the drug is legal. 

“We’re trying to help people find balance in their lives and let go of trauma and become better versions of themselves,” Markey said.

While there is significant evidence to support the viability of psychedelic compounds as treatment options for mental health patients, there are still a lot of limitations before they can go mainstream.

Dr. Rodriguez says safety and abuse concerns still need to be addressed. She gave the example of Ketamine which acts on increased heart rate and blood pressure and can be dangerous for people with pre-existing heart problems. 

“Because some of these drugs, more or less, have addictive properties, we need to make sure we are not giving drugs that have the potential for abuse,” Rodriguez said.  

According to Dr. Rodriguez, the key to implementing these drugs as mainstream treatment options is to understand their mechanics and have an open dialogue with desperate patients about the industry’s current progress, limitations, and possible side effects so they can make informed decisions about what might work for them.

Brand and Markey have similar positive outlooks about these drugs and hope people will change the way they think about mental health in light of these new developments. 

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