mental health, depression
Representation. Engin Akyurt / Pixabay

When major societal upheavals occur, some sectors suffer while others benefit. The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted goalposts for a lot of industries. Most have suffered, but a few, like the mental health industry, have seen an upsurge in demand.

The need for mental health products has been rising for decades, but large pharmaceutical companies have struggled to keep pace, with new developments and innovations lagging behind what is needed. Globally, over 700 million people a year are affected by mental illness, and there has been increasing frustration that those who need help just aren’t getting it. Also, for some, none of the current pharmaceuticals seem to work.

Drugs such as psilocybin and MDMA, long stigmatized, are now becoming more viable and accepted as treatment options for mental health. This has come about because of a few converging factors. One was the decades-long increasing need for mental health products that worked, culminating in the surge in demand caused by the stress of COVID-19. Another was the destigmatization and increased acceptance in some countries of benefits of numerous drugs, including psilocybin and MDMA.

The benefits of these substances have been known for a long time. In 1958, Albert Hoffmann, a chemist working for pharmaceutical giant Sandoz, first identified the compounds psilocybin and psilocin. The substances’ potential in treating a range of mental health conditions was soon realized, and Sandoz started selling them in pill form. Then, at the start of the 1970s, the war on drugs began, and the substances became illegal.

New mental health products are almost here, and the market is competitive

That situation has now changed, and biotech companies are using modern technology and the latest science to harness the benefits of the drugs. Numerous studies have shown the efficacy of psilocybin on improving mental health, and incredible progress toward a range of treatments is being made.

Already, some of these companies are making great strides in the battle against issues like treatment-resistant depression. The more notable are Compass Pathways, which already uses psilocybin treatments for clients; Atai Life Sciences, backed by Peter Thiel, is looking into a variety of mental health treatments; and Bright Minds, which is working on advanced serotonergic and psychedelic drugs.

The latter company, Bright Minds, is especially notable for pushing ahead with research and development of the next generation of psychedelic treatments thanks to a particularly strong science team.

Ian McDonald, CEO of Bright Minds, says, “One of our co-founders is Gideon Shapiro, who started his career at Sandoz in the 80s. Sandoz is the birthplace of LSD and psilocybin and was the first to try and harness the potential of psychedelic substances before they were made illegal in the 70s. We are picking up the baton once more”.

“Another co-founder is Alan Kozikowski, who studied under Nobel Laureate E.J. Corey at Harvard and is now a global leader in psychostimulant drugs. We’ve managed to bring together a solid scientific team, and this has enabled us to push the boundaries of research.”

Bright Minds was only founded in 2017, yet like others in the sector, it has made incredible strides. McDonald explains, “Thanks, in part, to surge of mental health issues resulting from the pandemic, we were able to raise around $30 million to further our research. We have also partnered with several universities, including the Medical College of Wisconsin and the University of Texas Medical Branch.

“We’re not just focusing on mental health issues either,” McDonald adds. “We also have partnerships with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the primary government agency responsible for biomedical and public health research, to test our drugs for epilepsy and chronic pain.”

Bright Minds’ approach differs from the others. McDonald explains, “We are improving on first-generation psychedelic compounds like psilocybin. Unlike other products on the market, we are developing next-generation superior molecules that are engineered to target specific serotonin receptors. Our drugs will replace psilocybin in dealing with issues like depression. This leads to fewer side effects while improving safety and efficacy.”

Biotech companies can sometimes find the development of new products and drugs difficult, with various hurdles and lengthy trials slowing progress. However, due to advances already made and the urgency of the demand brought on by the pandemic, psychedelic neuroscience companies face less risk and can bring out products faster than others in the pharmaceutical field.

McDonald says, “With our robust intellectual property, a track record for getting drugs to market, and partnering with big Pharma, we hope to be in a position to help a lot of people sooner rather than later.”

The booming field of psychedelic pharmaceuticals is cutting-edge, highly competitive and in demand. The potential of the drugs being developed for mental and other health issues is enormous. Given the progress already made by companies like Compass Pathways, Atai Life Sciences, and Bright Minds, the sector is poised for impressive things ahead.