Therapy facilities like Sunstone Therapies in Potomac, Maryland, have started administering psilocybin to patients in medical settings. Although Sunstone is less than a year old, Chris Baer — the chief experience officer — said the research they collect is vital in de-scheduling psilocybin.
The clinic opened in 2020 with a mission to “support the safe administration [of psilocybin] to patients who might need it,” Baer explained. “[We’re] focused on delivering trial data to help the FDA make an appraisal and ultimately a designation.”
Psilocybin Therapies for Cancer Patients
Sunstone Therapies’ first clinical trial focuses on treating the psychological impacts that cancer patients and their families face.
“[Our] research focuses on treating the emotional distress that accompanies a cancer diagnosis, not just treating the tumor,” said Baer. “The suffering of a cancer diagnosis affects the whole family, and we hope to alleviate that.”
Sunstone is focusing on cancer care because of its prevalence, said Baer. In 2020, The National Cancer Institute estimated the number of new cases in the U.S. was 1.8 million. But, this does not take into account the countless number of family members affected by a cancer diagnosis.
Treating Emotional Distress
Synthetic psilocybin combined with psychological support presents an unique and proactive way to treat emotional distress. As such, treatment centers and clinical trials have popped up in Houston, Atlanta, New York and more.
In addition to Sunstone Therapies, another clinic, the Aquilino Cancer Center in Rockville, Maryland is also conducting psilocybin therapies.
Baer, CXO of Sunstone, also helped create the healing center at Aquilino Cancer Center — a testing and treatment facility. This center was created specifically to treat emotional distress in cancer patients.
At Aquilino, patients receive one high dose of psilocybin during the session, which lasts roughly six hours, Dr. Manish Agrawal — a medical oncologist and co-director of clinical research at Aquilino — said in Psychology Today. Patients get one-on-one support from a trained therapist before, during, and after the session.
This type of psychedelic experience can leave patients with attitude and behavior changes, elevated creativity and altered perception, according to Agrawal.
The study is directed toward patients with earlier-stage cancer. This differs from other trials that focus on terminal patients who seek treatment because they grapple with death.
Psilocybin’s long-term positive outcomes are meant to treat the psychological impacts cancer has, even if the patient is cured. This is because the emotional strain and anxiety that patients face doesn’t go away after remission, and leaves lasting impacts on attitude, behavior, perception and overall life satisfaction.
Psilocybin’s Unique Effects
“Psilocybin is a bit of a dream boat in the sense that you can’t overdose on it. It’s not toxic,” said Baer. “So physiologically it tends to be very safe. [But] emotionally and psychologically, it can be very, very challenging, and it can even be scarring if you were to do it in the wrong way.”
Skeptics are doubtful that psilocybin can cure anxiety and depression. But away from the party scene, and in a therapeutic setting, psilocybin can accomplish what other medical treatments cannot.
“We haven’t seen anything quite that looks like this,” said Baer. “[Our] existing options for people with severe depression, anxiety or addiction have not shown much improvement in past decades. A new breakthrough would be great, [but] that requires careful research.”
When it comes to brain activity, Baer explained, “there is growing fMRI data that demonstrates profound effects of psychedelics on brain activity. However, the results of this data will take researchers some time to better understand.”
Nevertheless, some researchers have discovered that psilocybin enables a “state of unconstrained cognition,” or less limited perception, according to a study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in 2012.
This study scanned the brains of 15 subjects who were familiar with hallucinogens. Researchers scanned the subjects’ brains before and after infusions of a placebo or psilocybin.
The results showed a decrease in brain connectivity in key connector hubs in those who took psilocybin. In other words, it caused less restricted thought processes.
Therefore, depending on the dose, psilocybin can effectively broaden perception and consciousness.
Safer in a Medical Setting
When doctors administer psilocybin in a medical setting, they can support patients, Baer said. So, when “the cards go up in the air in the neural pathways, and as they come back down, they can land in a healthier state,” he said.
This means that patients can explore those pathways in a way that doesn’t leave them traumatized.
“While physiologically, researchers indicate that psilocybin is relatively safe, the psychological effects of an experience can be challenging without support,” said Baer. “Screening, preparation and integration are all key parts of the patient experience.”
The Future of Psilocybin
If the FDA approves psilocybin for pharmaceutical use , the rest of the world will likely follow suit, said Baer.
FDA approval, as opposed to state approval, would also allow psilocybin therapy facilities to open bank accounts and pass hurdles that cannabis businesses could not.
The FDA has not approved cannabis for medical use. Instead, individual states have legalized it. This has led to varying regulations from state-to-state. That leaves consumers in a gray area where cannabis is federally illegal, but legalized in some states. It is a mess for consumers. But it’s an even bigger challenge for distributors who do not get full entrepreneurial rights like other businesses.
“I think we learned something from the cannabis boom. In hurrying to bring products to market, [people] may [have] overlooked valuable research opportunities that could have better positioned cannabis as medicine at the federal level,” said Baer. “We hope to provide some of the research to one day permit patients everywhere to receive safe reliable access to psychedelic therapies in a therapeutic setting.”
Psilocybin treatments and clinical trials have the potential to save thousands upon thousands of lives, said Baer.
“[But for] right now, what we’re all trying to do is keep our heads down and just do the work,” said Baer. “A lot of what’s happening right now is happening at the right speed, and in the right way. [But] the first thing we got to do is stop throwing people in jail.”