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The Rise of Sponsored Psychedelic Studies Could Bias Research, Warn Psychiatrists

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Feb 01, 2022   

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The Rise of Sponsored Psychedelic Studies Could Bias Research, Warn Psychiatrists

The field of psychedelic drug research is experiencing a renaissance. But this could come at a cost of scientific integrity, argue some researchers.

Many of institutions driving the new wave of psychedelic research are large drug companies, which stand to profit from psychedelic applications. This situation, according to a group of academic psychiatrists from Columbia University, could be a recipe for unreliable results.

In a new viewpoint article published in JAMA Psychiatry, the researchers argue that the field of psychedelic science should be instead led by rigorous, unbiased research from academic institutions.


The perfect storm

Back in the 1950s and ‘60s, the emerging field of psychedelic research hinted that the drugs could become treatments for several addiction and mental health conditions. But before this research area could properly get off the ground, the political forces of the day implemented strict prohibitions on the drugs, making research near-impossible.

Now, decades later, the field is finally resuming, and much of the funding for studies is coming from private companies. This is a concern, the Columbia University experts say, as the new iteration of industry-sponsored research “could introduce bias at the earliest stages of study development” and influence the progression of essential clinical trials.

As things stand, the finances of most academic medical centers pale in comparison to the finances of the leading psychedelic drugs companies. The Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, for instance, started with roughly $17 million in private funding. In comparison, the Berlin-based ATAI Life Sciences – the largest psychedelics company in terms of market cap – is currently valued at $1.9 billion.

This financial imbalance makes independent academic research very challenging to conduct, the Columbia psychiatrists argue, even once regulatory approval is given.

In their paper, the psychiatrists urge that caution be taken with psychedelic research, so that the field does not find itself struggling with significant bias problems in the coming years.

“Although popular excitement, policy momentum, and financial investment in psychedelics continue to increase, it is imperative that research maintains scientific rigor and dispassion to outcomes in the pursuit of improved therapeutics and new insights into the mind, brain, and consciousness that this class of molecules may well afford in the coming years,” they write.

The worry from experts is that today’s budding psychedelic research field – one that is still very much in recovery from prohibition – might find itself hampered again by an emerging conflict between rapid entrepreneurial enthusiasm and the slower pace of scientific deliberation.

“There may be tension between avid advocates of this class of compounds and the deliberately slower pace of adoption encouraged by the scientific method, but rigorous research is necessary to more fully understand the risks and benefits involved in any presumptive clinical application.”


“Cart before the horse”

Speaking to Analytical Cannabis in 2020 on the matter of psychedelic research, Albert Garcia-Romeu, an assistant professor at the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins University, remarked that, to get psychedelic drug projects approved, an organization must “have the infrastructure to conduct drug administration research. So that’s already a high bar.”

“You have to have the type of facilities available to have a pharmacy, have a team of doctors and nurses, all the stuff that you need to have to do this work safely. And this expertise is not something that a lot of people have, because not many people have been able to do this. So that can be a little bit of a stumbling block.”

 

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