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Univ. of Washington researchers to test psilocybin in healthcare workers affected by pandemic



(University of Washington Photo)

Can psilocybin help relieve the mental health burden of clinicians affected by the COVID-19 pandemic? That’s a question University of Washington researchers aim to address in a new clinical trial testing the psychedelic drug in combination with psychotherapy.

The trial may start within a month, said UW physician Anthony Back, co-director of the University’s Center for Excellence in Palliative Care, who is leading the trial.

Healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients are being hit with a range of stressors, said Back, who has also written a guide on COVID-19 communication skills for clinicians, including self-care.

“There’s just a ton of grief from watching all these people die in front of them, who died in a very physically uncomfortable way. There is a lot of moral injury feeling that they didn’t do enough,” said Back in an interview with GeekWire. “A lot of them feel really badly that people’s families were not able to be with them because of COVID isolation procedures.”

On top of that, some patients are difficult or hostile. “Patients who scream at you and say that you’re lying to them, that COVID is a lie,” said Back. “I’ve talked to a number of clinicians who’ve been spit at by patients in the hospital because they’re so angry. And there’s a couple of people who’ve had patients throw bedpans with feces at them.”

And while there are a number of trials underway using psilocybin to treat depression, healthcare workers are experiencing something more complex. Other symptoms include post-traumatic stress, anxiety and burnout.


 “In a way, it’s bigger than just depression. There’s a kind of disillusionment and reckoning going on,” said Back.  

UW Physician Anthony Back. (UW Photo)

The trial is the first, to Back’s knowledge, to test psilocybin in healthcare workers. The study will enroll 30 clinicians with depression, anxiety and a state called existential distress. The trial will also involve a psychotherapy component, in a treatment series developed in partnership with Toronto-based psychedelics company Cybin, one of the trial’s funders.

After two sessions of psychotherapy, 15 of the participants will be treated with a single dose of psilocybin, and 15 with a placebo, followed by three follow-up “integration” sessions.

Four weeks after taking psilocybin, participants will be evaluated primarily for anxiety and depression, but also for existential distress, burnout, post-traumatic stress, and other states. Participants will be unblinded then, and the drug will be made available on an open-label basis to patients in the placebo group.

“Psychedelics kind of give your brain a kind of reset. So that the patterns of thinking, the ruminative cycle that goes round and round in your head, psychedelics disrupt that and give people a chance to kind of see what it’s like without that,” said Back. People can then take insights from the experience and ask, “how am I going to move into the future?”

The UW trial uses a pure form of psilocybin, the psychedelic component of magic mushrooms. (BigStock Photo)

A similar approach is behind a growing number of clinical trials testing psilocybin in conditions ranging from migraines to opioid use disorder. The largest trial testing the drug for depression, run by U.K.-based Compass Pathways, yielded mixed results in early phase 2b data released in November. People at the highest dose had decreased depression compared with people at a very low, control dose — but they also had higher rates of suicidal behavior and other adverse events.

Compass is planning a larger trial which may be able to assess if the effect on depression holds up and whether the side effects in the smaller trial are a fluke. Compass raised $127 million in a public offering last fall, part of a growing wave of investments in the area. During the first four months of 2021, psychedelics startups pulled in $329 million in venture funding. 

The University of Washington trial recently cleared its last regulatory hurdle, receiving the nod from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in an investigational new drug application approval letter, according to a Cybin statement this week. The new trial will inform another trial Cybin is planning on a modified form of psilocybin that may have different effects.

Woodinville, Wash.-based CaaMTech is another company researching new psychedelics. CaaMTech recently raised $22 million and in November announced a partnership with the University of Wyoming to test its compounds in laboratory animals.


Neither Back nor the University of Washington have a financial relationship with Cybin or any other psychedelics company, other than its support of the trial, said Back. Other funders of the trial are the Steven & Alexandra Cohen Foundation, the Rita & Alex Hillman Foundation, and The RiverStyx Foundation.

Source: Geek Wire

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