INTERNATIONAL – The World Economic Forum’s billionaire audience in Davos took a break from the problem of climate change to listen to the story of a company developing a hallucinogenic drug.
The fascination lay not in recreation, but for its potential as a treatment for addiction to opioids that have killed hundreds of thousands in the U.S. Modeled on an extract from the root of an African shrub and already used medically in a few countries, the experimental therapy is to soon be tested by Atai Life Sciences AG, a company studying other natural products, such as magic mushrooms to treat depression.
Atai, backed by billionaire investor Peter Thiel, and partner DemeRx Inc. are preparing for a mid-stage trial of a synthetic form of the substance, called ibogaine, for treatment of drug addiction. Interest in such therapies is high as an opioid epidemic rages in the U.S., the German firm’s founder Christian Angermayer said in the Swiss ski resort.
“In some circles, psychedelics are still associated with escape from the real world and irresponsible extravagance,” Thiel said in an email. “With FDA-controlled studies, we will come to see that their most powerful use brings people to mental health and sober sanity in a medical setting.”
Researchers and clinicians are searching for substance abuse treatments that aren’t addictive themselves. Unlike methadone, a substitute and therefore also an opioid, ibogaine is often referred to as addiction interrupter that appears to reset the brain chemistry involved in dependency.
Use of ibogaine traces back to an ancient ceremony marking young males’ entry to adulthood at the West African Bwiti tribe. Between 1930 and the 1960s, the compound was marketed as Lambarene in France, purporting efficacy as a stimulant.
The substance has already been used in some drug rehabilitation clinics to treat severe addiction. Studies over the past decade indicate that it can reduce the severity of opioid withdrawal scores, in some cases more efficiently than methadone.
Patients have described their experience as a sobering trip that visualizes the negative consequences of drug abuse, according to Deborah Mash, founder of DemeRx. The procedure requires 24 hours of clinical monitoring, she said, as ibogaine has been linked to heart side effects.
Since a generation of supposedly safer painkillers, introduced two decades ago, triggered an opioid epidemic, overdoses have killed about 400,000 Americans — more deaths than the country’s military suffered in World War II.
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