The Chronicle of Philanthropy: With Government Skittish about Psychedelics, Philanthropy Funds Promising Research
Summary: The Chronicle of Philanthropy highlights important contributions from donors that fuel research into the therapeutic applications of psychedelics such as psilocybin and MDMA, pointing out that psychedelic research is not funded by the government and relies on fundraising. “MAPS has raised $27 million to pay for the trials. Fundraising began with a $5 million bequest from Ashawna Hailey, a software entrepreneur (formerly known as Shawn) who died in 2014. It took off early last year when Pine, the anonymous Bitcoin millionaire, donated $1 million to MAPS and pledged another $4 million if that amount could be matched, which it was, by more than 500 new donors,” explains The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
Originally appearing here.
Back in the 1950s, when neither governments nor pharmaceutical companies would finance research into the birth-control pill — contraception was far too controversial — an unlikely benefactor came forward: Katharine McCormick, an MIT-educated feminist and the heiress to the International Harvester fortune, who was then in her mid-70s, almost single-handedly provided the funding needed to develop the first oral contraceptive.
The pill helped women become better educated, wealthier, and more independent. It is now considered a landmark achievement of philanthropy.
Today, it is research into the medical benefits of psychedelic drugs like psilocybin and LSD that has struggled to attract funding from governments, drug companies, or universities — and, once again, philanthropists have responded.
While these hallucinogens remain illegal, scientists at top medical schools, including Johns Hopkins, New York University, and Yale, have secured government approval to study psychedelics. Like the birth-control pill, these drugs have world-changing potential: Preliminary research suggests that when administered in a clinical setting, they can help treat a surprisingly broad array of ailments, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, and tobacco and alcohol addiction.
This is a mental-health revolution in the making, some say, funded by a diverse group of donors including writer Tim Ferriss, conservative activist Rebekah Mercer, and the Rockefeller family. It’s all the more remarkable because the drugs being studied — primarily psilocybin, which comes from so-called magic mushrooms, and MDMA, the active ingredient in street drugs known Ecstasy or Molly — are not only illegal but designated, along with heroin and fentanyl, as Schedule 1 drugs by the Drug Enforcement Administration, a classification reserved for substances thought to have a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use.
It’s no wonder that neither the government nor industry has funded the new wave of research.
"Absent philanthropy, none of this work would have been done," says Roland Griffiths, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins and a leading researcher in the field.
About his initial research into psychedelics, a landmark 2006 study that found psilocybin could occasion deeply meaningful "mystical-type experiences" with lasting impact, Griffiths says: "The results were life-changing for many of those participants, and they turned out to be life-changing for me."
In subsequent studies, Griffiths has found that psilocybin, along with therapy, can alleviate deep distress in terminal cancer patients and help people quit smoking.
While most studies have been small, and the understanding of how psychedelics operate on the brain remains limited, those driving the research can barely contain their excitement. David Nichols, founder of the Heffter Research Institute, which funds research on psychedelics, says: "Once we get past the politics of the 1960s, these drugs look really promising."
Motley Group of Donors
This time around, there’s no single benefactor driving the research, as Katharine McCormick did for the pill. Instead, a motley group of donors have collectively given tens of millions of dollars to fund what some call a psychedelic renaissance. Major donors include David Bronner and his family, which owns Dr. Bronner’s, a company that makes organic personal-care products; Bill Linton, the founder and CEO of life sciences company Promega, who started a nonprofit to secure government approval for psilocybin to alleviate depression; Mercer, the activist, whose concern focuses on veterans with PTSD; and the children of the late Richard Rockefeller, former chair of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, who was a passionate advocate for the research.
Others supporting the research include the foundation of Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife, Cari Tuna; the foundation of Nick Pritzker, a venture capitalist and the former president of the Hyatt hotel chain, and his wife, Susan; George Sarlo, a Holocaust survivor and founder of an investment firm; the entrepreneur Elon Musk; Groupon co-founder Andrew Mason; and an anonymous Bitcoin millionaire known only as Pine, who says his philanthropy was inspired by a drug trip.
"Scientific studies [like these] can really bend the arc of history in a way that most people would find unbelievable," says Tim Ferriss, the best-selling author, podcaster, and investor, who has become an evangelist for psychedelic research. Ferriss has visited Peru to meet traditional healers who dispense ayahuasca, a plant-based beverage that contains natural hallucinogens, and he has spent hundreds of hours with academic researchers in the United States, Europe, and Israel.
"This is my No. 1 priority," he says. "I have seen lives saved by these compounds, not once, not twice, but dozens of times." Ferriss sponsored a crowdfunding project to finance a depression study at Hopkins and, more recently, started a foundation to support psychedelic research that he will support with $2 million of his own money.
Carey Turnbull, a Greenwich, Conn., energy-industry executive who calls himself an ex-hippie, is another leading donor. He has supported research at NYU, Johns Hopkins, and Yale, including a study to see whether psilocybin-assisted therapy can be used to treat anorexia nervosa, which has the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder. "This is careful science being done at top universities," Turnbull says. "They have an imprimatur that will impress the outside world, as well as institutional review boards that will make sure they aren’t doing anything sketchy."
History as Legal Medicines
No one has accused the psychedelic researchers of doing anything sketchy. But Turnbull’s observation reflects the caution with which donors, academics, and nonprofits are approaching these drugs, largely because of their history. During the 1950s and early 1960s, LSD and psilocybin were legal medicines that were thought to hold great promise for the treatment of mental illness and alcoholism; they were prescribed to more than 40,000 patients and analyzed in more than 1,000 scientific papers, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Bill Wilson, a founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was administered LSD at a Veterans Administration hospital and tried unsuccessfully to bring the drug into AA. The actor Cary Grant declared that weekly therapy sessions where he took LSD therapy changed his life. "At last, I am close to happiness," he said. Other enthusiasts included the author Aldous Huxley and Time Inc. publisher Henry Luce.
The first wave of research ended abruptly when hallucinogens left the laboratory and became identified with the counterculture of the 1960s, as Michael Pollan reports in How to Change Your Mind, his 2018 book about the new psychedelic science. "In 1960, the future of psychedelic research looked bright," Pollan writes. "Yet within the brief span of five years, the political and cultural weather completely shifted, a moral panic about LSD engulfed America, and virtually all psychedelic research and therapy were either halted or driven underground."
The psychologist Timothy Leary, who was fired from the Harvard faculty for providing psychedelic drugs to undergraduates, saw the drugs as a way to fix society’s ills. "Turn on, tune in, drop out," Leary told a gathering of 30,000 hippies at a Be-In in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in 1967. Many did, and they found that, outside of a secure setting, drugs like LSD and mescaline could lead to "bad trips," causing intense feelings of anxiety and despair.
In a sharp and deliberate contrast to Leary, today’s scientists carefully screen their patients and administer psychedelics under controlled conditions, nearly always after several sessions of therapy and always with a trained therapist in the room. Patients settle onto a comfortable couch in a dimly lit room, put on an eye mask, and listen to music over headphones. Their drug trips last about eight hours.
Remarkably, many patients report that a single drug experience changed their attitudes and behaviors. They felt more connected to other people and to nature. Participants in one study described their psilocybin trips as "among the most personally meaningful experiences of their lives."
Griffiths, a sober-sounding physician in his 70s, has been surprised by those findings. "It’s unprecedented in psychiatry that a single, discrete intervention can produce durable effects," he says.
In an article in the journal Neuropharmacology called "Psychedelics: Where We Are Now, Why We Got Here, What We Must Do," Sean Belouin and Jack Henningfield write: "Such lasting benefits aided by one to two doses of a medication, particularly in severely ill and debilitated patients, may emerge as one of the most momentous breakthroughs in psychiatry and medication development in decades." Neither is an aging hippie: Belouin is an FDA official, and Henningfield is a longtime expert on addiction and industry consultant.
Focus on PTSD
Other leading advocates for psychedelics were shaped by the 1960s. "I took a lot of LSD and dropped out of college for 10 years," says Rick Doblin, founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, the largest nonprofit in the field. By the mid-1980s, Doblin, who is now 65, had cut off his long hair, entered a Ph.D. program at Harvard, and started MAPs with the aim of persuading federal regulators to legalize psychedelics.
"That was the only way forward, through science, through medicine, focusing on people who were suffering and showing that psychedelics could be helpful," he says. It was an audacious idea: Up until then, no nonprofit had ever won approval for a new drug from the FDA, and the nation was about to get its first "drug czar," under President George H.W. Bush. But MAPS is now closing in on its goal, more than three decades later.
During that time, Doblin has built MAPS from a one-man show into a global nonprofit organization with about 50 full-time employees and a budget of about $9 million in its most recent fiscal year. While MAPS has researched other psychedelics, including LSD and ibogaine, its current focus is on MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD. In 2017, the FDA granted "breakthrough therapy" status to the research, putting it on a fast track because it appears to offer substantial advantages over existing treatments. This year, MAPS will begin what it hopes will be a final set of clinical trials, involving 200 to 300 patients. If the results are favorable, MDMA could be available as a prescription drug in 2021.
The decision to focus on PTSD was no accident. "We had to pick people who society values," Doblin says. "In general, it’s veterans with PTSD and women survivors of childhood sexual abuse or adult rape. We have sympathetic patients." The need is great. "Over 20,000 people have contacted us saying they have PTSD — let us know when the trials begin," he says.
MAPS has raised $27 million to pay for the trials. Fundraising began with a $5 million bequest from Ashawna Hailey, a software entrepreneur (formerly known as Shawn) who died in 2014. It took off early last year when Pine, the anonymous Bitcoin millionaire, donated $1 million to MAPS and pledged another $4 million if that amount could be matched, which it was, by more than 500 new donors.
Reliance on Individual Giving
Very little of MAPS support comes from mainstream foundations. George Soros’s Open Society Foundations gave $70,000 to train therapists of color. The Nathan Cummings Foundation has donated $35,000 since 2015 at the request of Cummings family members who are trustees. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund gave $10,000 to honor the late Richard Rockefeller when he stepped down as its board chair in 2013.
A practicing physician for years, Rockefeller was a passionate advocate of research into psychedelics, particularly as a treatment for PTSD. His adult children, Clay Rockefeller and Rebecca Lambert, raised $500,000 in their father’s memory to support the clinical trials at MAPS. Meantime, the Mercer Family Foundation, founded by the family of Robert Mercer, a conservative hedge-fund executive, and his daughter Rebekah Mercer, donated $1 million for the trials, specifying that it be used to help U.S. veterans.
While MAPs has driven the work on MDMA and PTSD, two other nonprofits have funded the research into psilocybin, a psychedelic that occurs naturally in "magic mushrooms," which have been cultivated by indigenous people in Mexico and Central America for centuries. The Heffter Research Institute was founded in 1993 by David Nichols, an emeritus professor of psychopharmacology at Purdue; it has raised about $9 million since then. Nichols also has manufactured and supplied the psilocybin and MDMA for much of the research that has been done. (He has a license from the DEA permitting him to do so.)
The Usona Institute is a medical research organization started in 2014 by Bill Linton and Malynn Utzinger, a physician who works with him at Promega, after a family friend of Linton’s was successfully treated for depression with psilocybin. Usona has raised about $17.5 million. The RiverStyx Foundation and Carey Turnbull, the ex-hippie turned businessman, have also invested millions into psilocybin research.
Their financing has produced encouraging results. Recent studies at Hopkins and NYU found that psilocybin, accompanied by therapy, provided substantial and sustained benefits for patients with life-threatening cancer who were suffering from depression and anxiety.
Benjamin Kelmendi, a researcher at Yale Medical School, is also studying the impact of psilocybin on depression, while doing basic research to uncover the ways in which psilocybin and MDMA affect the brain. "We really do not understand the pharmacology of psilocybin," he says.
Uncertainty and Challenges
Uncertainty about how drugs like psilocybin and MDMA actually work is one reason to avoid irrational exuberance about the healing power of psychedelics. Most of the recent studies have been small, and it’s difficult to tease out the impact of the drugs when they are administered in conjunction with therapy. Yet another challenge is designing protocols in which patients don’t know whether they are taking a hallucinogen or a placebo; there’s no mistaking the experience of being on a drug trip.
Still, philanthropic funding has built a foundation of research findings that are strong enough to entice a start-up company into the field. In 2016, George Goldsmith and Ekaterina Malievskaia, who are donors to MAPS and Heffter, started Compass Pathways, a London-based firm that is preparing to run the first large-scale trial of psilocybin therapy for treatment-resistant depression.
In an interview, Goldsmith called Compass Pathways "an involuntary start-up." The costs of bringing a new drug to market are too high for philanthropy, he says, a minimum of $125 million. "In order to do this work responsibly and at scale, you need a lot of fuel in the tank," he says. "That’s why pharma companies exist." Compass Pathways has raised nearly $40 million, from, among others, German entrepreneur Christian Angermayer, New York-based investment firm Galaxy Investment Partners, and Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel.
One more sign of the interest in psychedelics: In March, the FDA approved a fast-acting drug known as esketamine to treat severe depression. The drug is derived from ketamine, a legal anesthetic that can cause out-of-body sensations and is already being used off-label to treat depression. The Brain and Behavior Research Foundation, which supports research into mental illness, over the years has donated more than $6.5 million to study ketamine, work that undergirds the development of esketamine and other new potential medicines.
Some advocates of psychedelics hope that drugs like psilocybin, MDMA, and LSD can follow the path of marijuana, which was first approved for medicinal purposes but more recently has become decriminalized or legalized.
They recognize that psychedelics can be dangerous when taken without proper preparation or in the wrong setting, but they believe the effects of the drugs can be transformative, on individuals and society.
David Bronner, cosmic engagement officer of Dr. Bronner’s, is among those who argue that psychedelics can have far-reaching benefits.
"All of us suffer from alienation and disconnection, from ourselves and from one another and from nature," Bronner says. "It’s crucial to wake up to the miraculous world we’re part of and understand how we can serve and make it better for all of us."
Rick Doblin, of MAPS, makes no secret of the fact that his ultimate goal is to make the drugs widely available.
"We have a very good chance of medicalizing psychedelics and also, over a period of 10 to 15 years after that happens, moving beyond access just for patients to the families of patients and eventually [to others] through some licensed legalization approach," Doblin says.
"It’s a fundamental human right to explore your consciousness," he says.