The Renaissance of Psychedelics Research: An Interview with the CEO of MindMed, Rob Barrow

by Aurora Mau
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Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life,” Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Inc., once said. The psychedelic experience, also known as “the trip,” provides the users with visual and other sensory distortions, and helps explore new insights, emotions, and thoughts. It enhances emotional and perceptual response by serotonin receptor activation with relatively low toxicity and no sign of addiction provocation or withdrawal symptoms.

Aside from the hallucination, the renaissance of psychedelics since 2006 has shown the potential effects on treating mental health disorders, and successfully brought psychedelics back to the research field with more advanced, careful investigation compared to the 1950s.

LSD was first synthesized accidentally in 1938 by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, who also discovered its psychoactive properties five years later. In the early 1950s, the psychiatrist Humphry Osmond was the one who pioneered the use of LSD as a treatment for mental disorders and even introduced the term “psychedelics” for mind-manifesting. Several other researchers followed suit resulting in hundreds of experiments and papers being published before it was stigmatized. By 1967, LSD’s association with the hippie counterculture grew ever stronger, and along with its ties to the student-led anti-war movement, it became criminalized from 1968 onwards.

There are many factors playing into the renaissance of psychedelics. Among these include the U.S. Supreme Court decision to approve a hallucinogenic tea for religious purposes, a rigorously designed, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical study by Roland Griffithst to study the psychological effects of psychedelics, and the rising awareness of mental health issues. All of these have played into the effort of bringing psychedelics out of the moral panic in the 1960s. The toxicity and other negative effects are being carefully investigated again to overrule the rumours spread by the media, and the researchers began to look into the beneficial effects of psychedelic drugs to find the next potential therapy for people who suffer from depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. 

Related article: Cure or Poison? New Ventures Go IPO Continuously As “Psychedelics” Enter the Mental Health Market

2021 was the year that many big companies developed psychedelic medicines IPOs or listed on US stock exchanges, including Atai Life Science,  COMPASS Pathways, and Cybin. According to the business information platform, Crunchbase, over 80 companies are devoted to developing psychedelic therapy, enlarging the psychedelic drug industry.

Among all the biotech companies investing big in psychedelics, MindMed is one of the fastest-growing biopharmaceutical companies. With more people becoming comfortable with the idea of using psychedelic compounds as mental health disorder medicines, MindMed thinks it is the perfect time to engage with more interesting and nuanced questions within what is still overwhelmingly perceived as a single class of medicines.

In this interview with GeneOnline, Rob Barrow, the CEO of MindMed, discloses the secret strategy of how MindMed distinguishes itself from the competition of psychedelic therapy, and unfolds the experience and safety concerns of LSD, giving us a complete and new perspective of the psychedelic industry.

How MindMed Distinguishes Itself From the Psychedelic Industry

The mysterious therapeutic potential of psychedelics has drawn many individuals, organizations, and biotech companies into this field, hoping to discover the magical power behind them. However, with many companies researching the same substances and targeting the same indications, it can be difficult to distinguish oneself from the others.

“In parallel to that development, we saw a growing cultural awareness, especially in the US and Canada, that these once-stigmatized substances have significant medicinal potential to improve patient outcomes,” said Barrow.

Founded in 2019, MindMed went public in 2020 and is already publicly traded on the NASDAQ by 2021. Over this short period of time, it has developed and deployed psychedelic-inspired medicines and therapies to address different mental illnesses and addictions.

MindMed has found its way to distinguish itself from the competition of psychedelic therapy. By recognizing its core positioning as a biopharmaceutical company developing novel products to treat brain health disorders, MindMed is able to focus on research in finding scientific evidence of how psychedelics treatment is going to change people’s lives. 

Unfold MindMed’s Psychedelic Treatment 

MindMed’s current drug development research focuses on expanding the knowledge base around the factors that influence an individual’s psychedelic therapy experience, including dosing quantity, frequency, and the setting of administration.

With LSD exerting its effect through agonist activity at the serotonin 2A receptor (5-HT2AR), it is able to exert its potential positive effects in improving anxiety and depression. After gathering data from years of research, MindMed launched Project Lucy in mid-2020 as a commercial drug development project focusing on experiential doses of LSD for the treatment of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). 

With the proven results showing chronic administration of LSD was able to increase the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which supports neurons’ growth and differentiation, and also increase the transcription of certain genes that promote neural plasticity and changing neuronal structure, MindMed has also seen another therapeutic potential of LSD in treating ADHD. Thus, it launched a Phase 2 LSD microdosing (sub-perceptual doses) trial for adult ADHD treatment in 2020. Additionally, MindMed is also looking into the sensory effects caused by perceptual doses of LSD for treating ADHD.

“We are not wedded to the idea that psychedelics are a magic cure-all, we are scientists looking at decades of evidence that tells us these are long-ignored paths to improve patient outcomes,” Barrow emphasized.

And since mental health issues vary from person to person, when it comes to personalized psychedelic therapy, MindMed also has a digital medicine team working on developing technology that helps healthcare professionals track an individual’s biomarkers before, during, and after a session.

“A key part of personalization is understanding how each patient’s body is reacting, and learning more about what we can do with that information, ” said Barrow.

All About the Safety Issues of Psychedelic Therapy

When it comes to medicine or treatment, there are always dangers and side effects on the other side, not to mention the hallucination-providing psychedelics, LSD. 

Apart from the potential psychological benefit, the risks of psychedelics remain not being fully understood yet. It is reported that the adverse effects include instances of psychosis, flashback, and having temporary suicidal thoughts, etc. Furthermore, overdose deaths have occurred due to the ingestion in very large doses, or by mixing with other drugs and/or alcohol. As an American author and psychedelics expert, Michael Pollan, once said in an interview, “this experience is very powerful and needs to be regulated very carefully.”

With Project Lucy entering its Phase 2b stage, MindMed is confident with its dosage being efficient but also safe for humans. “We’re always learning more about how these substances affect people, including those who may already be dealing with suicidal thoughts, psychological distress, etc,” said Barrow, “all of the dosage levels being tested in Project Lucy have been proven safe for humans as a prerequisite for this research.”

Barrow also mentioned that all the psychedelics substances being tested meet the same safety criteria as any other drug being put forward for FDA approval.

The Psychedelic Market in the Post COVID-19 Era

Mental health disorders were a serious issue even before COVID hit the world, and it is undeniable that the COVID pandemic has also worsened the situation, with a 25% increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide, according to WHO’s newest released data.

“While that fact helps motivate us every day to make a difference for patients, ultimately we’re working to address trends that pre-date COVID and will endure long after, ” said Barrow, “if anything, COVID has helped magnify the idea that the current healthcare systems fail to meet patients’ needs, especially in the treatment of brain health disorders.”

As the need for mental illness healthcare rises, the psychedelic renaissance might be able to allow more and more patients to get access to alternative treatments, and potentially change their lives. However, there is no psychedelic treatment being approved by the FDA yet, demonstrating the potential therapeutic effects are still mostly being studied at this moment. But since FDA has approved several clinical trials investigating the medical use of psychedelics, we can be sure that the FDA and National Institutes of Health will evaluate the medical risk-benefit profile of psychedelic substances in a scientific aspect over its political implications.


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