Compass Pathways, the UK-based start-up that is developing a clinical depression treatment based on the active ingredient found in magic mushrooms has successfully closed an $80 million funding round. Investors included Paypal co-founder and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel. The start-up says it will use the funds to finance further research into psilocybin, the psychoactive compound that magic mushrooms are famous for.
Compass Pathways has already initiated trials around how effective psilocybin is as a treatment for forms of depression that have not responded to other medications. But chief executive and co-founder George Goldsmith want to conduct deeper research in whether psilocybin or other psychedelic compounds might be effective in treating other mental health conditions from anorexia to bipolar II disorder.
Doing so will be expensive, as Mr Goldsmith comments:
“It’s a fair amount of money, but the problem [of treatment-resistant mental health conditions] is large and the ability to do the work has to be large, too.”
An American entrepreneur, Mr Goldsmith established Compass Pathways in London in 2016, alongside his wife, the Russian doctor Ekaterina Malievskaia, who is 53. The pair’s interest in the potential of psychedelics in the treatment of depression and other mental conditions stems from her son suffering from depression after he left home to study at university in the USA.
After psychotherapy and antidepressant treatment failed to result in any improvement in his condition, Ms Malievskaia resorted to experimental therapies involving psychedelics and ketamine, offered under the supervision of a Netherlands-based therapist. These treatments did seem to have a positive effect on her son’s condition, even though they were not clinically approved.
The psychotherapy and prescription drugs doctors currently use to treat patients with depression work around 70% of the time. For the remaining 30%, around 100 million patients worldwide, these treatments have little to no effect, say World Health Organisation statistics.
Compass Pathways is confident that a psilocybin might help a significant portion of that remaining 30%. The treatment it is developing involves patients taking synthetic psilocybin in a controlled environment and supervised by a trained therapist. Early results were positive, leading to a 2018 decision by the USA Food and Drug Administration (FDA) assigning it “breakthrough therapy” status. That means the clinical trials process is fast tracked towards full approval.
A trial involving 89 test patients last year run by King’s College London found none experienced any negative side effects after taking the synthetic psilocybin. A phase 2B clinical trial is now ongoing involving 216 patients across Europe and North America. If that stage is passed, only one more will remain before the treatment would be approved by the FDA and European regulators. If the current timetable is met, that would mean the treatment being available by 2025.
Exactly how and why psilocybin and other psychedelics may help with mental health problems is not yet clear to scientists. The best guess so far is that the effect is like a ‘reboot’ of the brain that rolls it back towards ‘factory settings’, like an electronic device that has started to be buggy.
Mr Goldsmith’s explanation is:
“People with depression get caught in negative thought loops. What psilocybin can do is reset the thought loops, in combination with therapy. The medicine creates an openness and a new way of looking at things.”
Compass Pathway already had enough of a cash runway to complete trials for its depression treatment, having raised £3 million from early backers in 2017 and £25 million from Mr Thiel in 2018. The latter is increasing his investment in the start-up now via his Founders Fund. German biotech company Atai Life Sciences is another earlier investor increasing its stake. Among the most notable new investors is Japanese pharma group Otsuka.
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