Is Psychedelic Research Funding Starting to Shift?

MedPage Today – by Ryan Basen

The first U.S. psychedelic research center at an academic institution came online when a foundation and select investors granted researchers at Johns Hopkins University $17 million in 2019. The funds have enabled them not only to enhance their study, but also to handle regulatory work and add key infrastructure.

The Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research now has several therapy rooms for patients, a robust administrative staff, and provides researchers a salary.

Several other prestigious academic institutions have since built their own centers following this model. (See the accompanying story on the rise of new academic centers focused on psychedelic research.)

“I think academic medicine sees the investments [companies and others] are making in developing new psychedelics,” said Rachel Yehuda, PhD, who directs the Icahn School of Medicine’s psychedelic research center. While they are involved primarily for financial benefit, “even those who don’t believe in the therapeutic potential understand the value of vetting it.”

Centers were initially funded largely by philanthropic gifts. Nonprofits such as the Usona and Heffter institutes, and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), were key funders.

Donors liked being founding members, said Kevin Balktick, an entrepreneur who organizes a popular psychedelics conference.

“These opportunities for donors don’t always come along,” he said, adding they were also driven by “a genuine desire to see what may be effective to treat disorders.”

That desire helped MAPS assets more than double from $10 million to $25 million from fiscal years 2017 to 2019, for example, according to information shared with MedPage Today by the industry tracker Psilocybin Alpha. MAPS revenue also rose from $1.5 million in 2010 to nearly $20 million in 2018.

But sources say large-scale funding from private donors is drying up. Indeed, MAPS’ assets leveled off in 2020, according to its website. Foundations have already made their commitments.

Investment from industry has increased, though, as biopharmaceutical companies are starting to bet on these substances becoming therapies in the coming years.

“It’s being funded by the mainstream, which is rare in psychiatry,” said Collin Reiff, MD, an addiction psychiatrist at NYU Langone who works with the university’s psychedelics center but is funded separately. “Academia and industry are following [nonprofits’] lead.”

But sources don’t expect industry to help build academic centers. Rather, these companies are likely to fund individual studies and projects.

The federal government may also be warming to paying for psychedelic research. Earlier this fall, the National Institute on Drug Abuse gave the Hopkins center $4 million to run a multi-site pilot study of psilocybin for tobacco cessation.

It was the first government-sponsored study of these substances in a half-century.

“That’s a really big deal,” Reiff said. He thinks it will lead more academic departments to be receptive to psychedelic research.

In addition, the NIH in April gave Benjamin Kelmendi, MD — leader of Yale’s psychedelics research group — a $190,000 “career development” award that included his studies of psilocybin for depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. That’s according to a STAT News editorial co-written by MAPS director Rick Doblin, PhD. (Kelmendi did not return requests for comment.)

For years, the NIH “was very clear they weren’t going to fund this work,” said William Stoops, PhD, an addiction specialist at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine. “Now we know NIH will fund this.”

Still, Jeffrey Lieberman, MD, Columbia University’s psychiatry chair, said NIH has not funded a substantial amount of work, nor has it drawn researchers together.

“The scientific community is beginning to react, but it’s already fairly late in the game,” Lieberman said.

Overall, sources hope for more government funding, which could in turn lead academia to further engage.

Matthew Johnson, PhD, Hopkins’ associate center director, estimated researchers have less than one-tenth the amount they need to thoroughly investigate known psychedelics and similar substances. Stoops pegged that figure at no more than one-quarter. Said Johnson: “There is not enough funding now given the promise of this field.”

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