A €3.3M (£3M) Series A round raised by the Oxford-based biomedicine company Beckley Psytech will allow the company to study the use of a psychedelic compound for the treatment of mental health disorders and neuropsychiatric disease.
The investors include the UK VC firms Mediqventures and Jamjar Investments, which was set up by Richard Reed, co-founder of the smoothies company Innocent Drinks. Beckley Psytech will use the proceeds to progress a psychedelic drug into preclinical testing.
Beckley Psytech was co-founded last year by Amanda Feilding and her son Cosmo Feilding Mellen, now CEO of the company. The startup has a partnership with the UK-based Beckley Foundation, a non-profit organization created by Feilding in 1998 to study the benefits of psychoactive drugs and influence global policy regarding their therapeutic use.
One in four people globally are affected by mental health disorders, according to the WHO. Mental health conditions are often chronic, poorly understood, and are associated with stigma and social exclusion. And most of them do not have effective treatments.
“Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, the most commonly prescribed treatment for depression, are usually slow to take effect and a third of patients become treatment-resistant,” Feilding Mellen told me. “Many of the currently available treatments utilize similar approaches with limited incremental gain.”
“Psychedelic drugs offer a differentiated approach which could add to the therapeutic options available, either alone or in combination with other treatments. The early data are encouraging in terms of the effect size, response rate, and onset of action.”
Proving the effectiveness of a drug is especially challenging if the target disease is related to mental health. It is hard to objectively establish if a treatment is effective, and the placebo effects are often strong in this area of medicine.
Beckley Psytech is exploring the potential of 5-MeO-DMT, a psychedelic agent that transiently activates brain proteins normally activated by the neurochemical serotonin. This compound is naturally found in plants and a species of toad, and its use has been documented as early as the late 8th Century AD.
Research into psychedelic substances is seriously hampered by prohibiting regulations, due to the potential misuse of the compound. But Feilding Mellen — who has directed two documentaries about psychedelic drugs and drug policy — is optimistic. “Drug development regulations protect public health and new medicines must meet efficacy, safety, and quality standards before they can be approved.”
“If the efficacy and safety of 5-MeO-DMT can be demonstrated, we can license psychedelics to the benefit of patients. The drugs will need to be prescribed by appropriately qualified physicians and will be scheduled according to local guidelines.”
Beckley Psytech is not alone in repurposing psychedelic drugs to treat mental health conditions. A 2016 pilot clinical trial run by the Beckley Foundation and Imperial College London reported that psilocybin, a hallucinogenic substance in magic mushrooms, reduced symptoms in people with medication-resistant depression. The most advanced psilocybin programs for the treatment of depression include phase II trials run by Yale University and the UK firm Compass Pathways.
Along with psychedelics, Amanda Feilding also has a long history of promoting research into medical cannabis and other controversial practices. “People used to call mum a wacko,” Feilding Mellen told Bloomberg in 2019. “And now she’s seen as a visionary.”
Kostas Vavitsas, PhD, is a Senior Research Associate at the University of Athens, Greece, and a freelance writer on biotech and synthetic biology topics. Follow him on Twitter @konvavitsas
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