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The world's first psilocybin research center is opening in Jamaica
FieldTrip is advancing the realm of clinical psychedelic testing.
- FieldTrip Ventures is opening the world's first psilocybin research center at the University of the West Indies.
- More research on magic mushrooms follows mounting evidence of the efficacy of ketamine and MDMA.
- Ronan Levy of FieldTrip believes psychedelics could help treat a wide range of mental health conditions.
When I noticed articles floating around about the opening of the world's first psilocybin research center, I figured they were from satire websites. Sure, the case for therapeutic psychedelics is growing: ketamine is the first psychedelic to be legally prescribed for depression in America; MAPS is entering phase 3 trials for MDMA for the treatment of PTSD; iboga and ayahausca are used in addiction treatment in other nations. And, of course, John Hopkins announced the opening of the first psychedelic research center last month.
But a center focused solely on. . . magic mushrooms?
Thank Toronto-based FieldTrip Ventures for that. Ronan Levy is one of the founders. Having cut his teeth in the Canadian medical marijuana business, I was excited to chat with him about this exciting new project (you can hear our full conversation here). The '60s might have been the golden era of psychedelic experimentation, but we are entering a new phase of clinical research to discover just how effective they are for treating a range of mental health conditions.
Given the results this far, a new era has begun.
Tim Ferriss & Michael Pollan Journey into Psychedelics | SXSW LIVE STUDIO
Derek: On FieldTrip's website, it says the mission is "to heal the sick and better the well." Let's start with the healing.
Ronan: The evidence suggests that psychedelics, broadly speaking, can help treat a number of mental health conditions, ranging from depression to anxiety to OCD to addiction. There are studies now looking at anorexia and eating disorders as well. Not all of them have been conducted at clinical-trial levels, but there's definitely been trials on a small scale for all of those conditions. Psilocybin, in particular, has been studied for use in the treatment of depression as well as addiction. I think almost any mental health condition may benefit from psilocybin and other psychedelics. That seems to be where the evidence is leading.
Derek: Their illegality is especially frustrating considering the efficacy rates of SSRIs. What would you say to someone who is thinking about trying psychedelics but is still on other medication?
Ronan: We don't advocate that anybody attempt to undertake a psychedelic experience on their own. There is evidence to suggest that these molecules can be very effective in the context of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. It's not as well understood outside of that. The effects are unknown in terms of "Will it help?" Many people anecdotally say it absolutely does, but then there's broader concerns of whether you're not carefully considering what other medications or supplements you're using. We would say do it under the context of a medical professional, but presently there are no medical professionals licensed to actually provide psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. At this point, we don't advocate that people try this out on their own until it's better understood.
Derek: Michael Pollan writes extensively about the need for a guide, someone leading you through the experience.
Ronan: That's where the evidence is and we'll follow the evidence. That certainly doesn't mean that it doesn't merit exploring the potential of psychedelics outside of the context of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. However, there's no evidence on that yet right now, so we remain neutral.
On site are representatives Johnathan Werynski (left) and Ronan Levy from CanvasRX.
Photo by Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Derek: Understood. I appreciate your focus on being evidence-based. I'm also an advocate for cannabis. One thing that has perturbed me has been the CBD explosion, when the efficacy rate in all the studies that I've read is4 00 milligrams and above, yet coffee shops sell five milligrams for $8. Do you foresee any dangers of this happening with psychedelics?
Ronan: There is potential danger. They're powerful molecules. They're psychoactive and psychotropic. Anytime you're affecting brain chemistry merits caution and prudence. Do I foresee a future where they're being added to coffee? Not likely, no. Just like you're not going to see THC being added to coffee, at least in a legal context. There are risks that bad actors or people really interested in making a buck create products that aren't necessarily safe, which lead to bad outcomes, which may lead to political backlash. Right now it seems there's a lot of momentum in favor of psychedelics, and we want to keep that momentum. The best way to do that is to make sure to advance in a very thoughtful way.
Derek: You might be wrong on one of those counts. Here in Los Angeles, the first sanctioned cannabis cafe just opened.
Ronan: That's fair. I'm not familiar. It seems that the FDA's stated position is still that CBD is not permitted in any food product. I assume the same applies on the federal perspective on THC. Hopefully, whoever's opening that cafe is doing it really thoughtfully. No one needs a bad experience.
Derek: Speaking of cannabis, you started your work with Grassfed Ventures. Was cannabis your gateway drug into psychedelics?
Ronan: Even before Grassfed Ventures, four of the five founders of FieldTrip had started two sister companies, Canadian Cannabis Clinics and CanvasRX. Canadian Cannabis Clinics is the largest network of specialized medical clinics in Canada. That's where we got our experience with alternative medications or plant-based medications.
We're open-minded, but I'd say a little bit skeptical as to the therapeutic applications of cannabis when we first started. All of us were quite moved emotionally and quite convinced logically and intuitively that cannabis is a very effective medicine for a lot of people in the therapeutic applications. When we left to start the next thing, we became aware of psychedelics and saw the parallels between cannabis and psychedelics in terms of the evidence supporting therapeutic use, which is actually greater with psychedelics than there has been for cannabis. So yes, cannabis was our gateway into psychedelics.
THE HEROIC DOSE - Dennis McKenna on Psilocybin Dosage - Magic Mushrooms
Derek: You're opening the first psilocybin research center in Jamaica at the University of the West Indies, which I find fascinating and important. How did you choose that location? Can you talk about the function of the center?
Ronan: When we became aware of the opportunity around psychedelics in terms of its therapeutic value, we ran into the challenge that anybody looking at the space runs into, which is how to build a business in an illegal industry. We're not interested in doing anything illegal. As we did our homework, we realized that there are a few jurisdictions around the world in which psilocybin mushrooms are legal. Jamaica is one of those places. Through our work in the cannabis industry, we had great contacts down there. We had very constructive conversations and became aware that there's openness to it. It made sense to start with Jamaica.
So we are opening the world's first legal research and cultivation facility focused on psilocybin-producing mushrooms in conjunction with the University of the West Indies. We have the expressed support of various ministers and various levels of government to do this work. The focus of the research facility is to essentially do a lot of the work that's been done on cannabis over the last 10 years: focus on genetics, strain development, and understand the molecular chemistry of psilocybin mushrooms. We want to understand what other molecules are of interest, which may have therapeutic effects, and isolate them, as well as develop the standards for testing for all of these things. Really, doing anything you think may have been relevant to the development of the cannabis industry.
Derek: Why did you specifically choose mushrooms?
Ronan: The business rationale is that there's a lot of white space to be studied and lots of IP to be developed. From a societal perspective, the embrace of psilocybin-producing mushrooms is going to be much easier than with the more robust experiences that you have with DMT or ayahuasca. Our hope for the facility in Jamaica is that we will eventually expand into other plant-based psychedelics, but there's enough work to be done on psilocybin-producing mushrooms, all 200 or so genetic strains.
Roger Lopez, Shaman of a Shipibo community in the Amazon jungle, conduct a session of Ayahuasca.
Photo credit: Fotoholica Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
Derek: When you talk about IP and moving into pharmaceuticals, are there any dangers that you foresee anyone being disturbed by that sort of approach to what some people consider sacred medicine?
Ronan: It's something we're certainly conscious and aware of. I don't anticipate it being an issue. Our perspective is we have no interest in diminishing the heritage or sacred beliefs of any culture. But we do believe that a consciously-operated, for-profit entity is the best way to help make the therapeutic value of psychedelic molecules available to the greatest number of people. We're trying to find the appropriate balance between cultural sensitivity and good business practices.
Derek: I originally discovered mushrooms and other psychedelics in the early nineties. It was in an environment and a community that talked about Terence McKenna and the hero's dose. In the last few years, microdosing has become very popular. I was skeptical at first, but then came to the conclusion that dosage matters and whatever helps is important.
Ronan: It hasn't been studied in depth and therefore the effects, whether it's effective or not, is not well understood. More importantly, if people perceive they're being helped then they are being helped. Whether it's the pharmacology involved in the microdosing or just the placebo effect is of less importance in my mind. The bigger concern is that the effects of long-term use of psilocybin at microdosing levels isn't well understood, so there's potential health consequences around it. A couple of months ago, the first observational study on microdosing came out and it seems very promising, but I think more research needs to be done.
Derek: Have you envisioned any sort of rollout of training courses that would be developed as the research evolves?
Ronan: Absolutely. With clinical trials going on right now, by and large the protocols that they're using are very labor- and time-intensive on part of a psychotherapist. It makes sense because they want to achieve the greatest potential results. There's a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of optimizing delivery of these services and minimize the amount of psychotherapist time that needs to be involved to deliver as good if not better outcomes than currently prescribed by the protocols.
Training people is going to be essential as you scale this, but there's not a whole lot of evidence on what to base training on outside of what exists in the current clinical trials. You can see really effective training materials and courses coming out because there hasn't been a lot of experimentation in terms of how the psychotherapy is being delivered. There are protocols that are being used right now similar to the ones that were developed in the fifties and sixties, which haven't been studied in depth as to whether the amount of psychotherapy work involved is necessary.
- Psychedelics may be a powerful treatment for alcoholism - Big Think ›
- Psilocybin promotes neuroplasticity in rats: a breakthrough - Big Think ›
- Psilocybin promotes neuroplasticity in rats - Big Think ›
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Is Bitcoin akin to 'digital gold'?
- In October, PayPal announced that it would begin allowing users to buy, sell, and hold cryptocurrencies.
- Other major fintech companies—Square, Fidelity, SoFi—have also recently begun investing heavily in cryptocurrencies.
- While prices are volatile, many investors believe cryptocurrencies are a relatively safe bet because blockchain technology will prove itself over the long term.
Presentation slide from Sanja Kon's presentation on the evolution of money at 2020 Web Summit
Credit: Sanja Kon<p>The move came shortly after the payments company Square invested $50 million into Bitcoin, and after Fidelity announced that it was opening a Bitcoin fund into which qualified purchasers could invest <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-08-26/fidelity-launches-inaugural-bitcoin-fund-for-wealthy-investors" target="_blank">(minimum investment: $100,000)</a>. Together, this institutional backing might have something to do with Bitcoin's recent surge back to near its 2017 price peak of $19,783. (Bitcoin is listed at 19,384.30 as of Dec. 3.)<br></p>
Presentation slide from Sanja Kon's presentation on the evolution of money at 2020 Web Summit
Credit: Sanja Kon<p>But more importantly, it suggests cryptocurrencies might soon have the opportunity to prove themselves in real-world use cases. After all, skeptics have long doubted the ability of cryptocurrencies to go mainstream as a form of everyday payment. But people seem increasingly comfortable with digital payment systems.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The entire world is going to come into digital first," Schulman said at Web Summit, adding that PayPal's services already go hand-in-hand with cryptocurrencies. "As we thought about it, digital wallets are a natural complement to digital currencies. We've got over 360 million digital wallets and we need to embrace cryptocurrencies."</p><p>Sanja Kon, vice president of global partnerships at the cryptocurrency payments processor company UTRUST, also spoke at Web Summit about the increasing adoption of digital payments:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Physical cash is becoming more and more obsolete. And the next step in the evolution is digital currency."</p><p>Kon noted some of the inherent advantages of cryptocurrencies, namely ownership. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"For many people, this is really the main benefit of cryptocurrency: Users owning cryptocurrencies are able to control how they spend their money without dealing with any intermediary authority like a bank or a government, for example," Kon said, adding that there are no bank fees associated with cryptocurrencies, and that international transaction fees are significantly lower than wire transfers of fiat currency.</p><p>Kon said cryptocurrencies have unique growth opportunities in areas where people aren't integrated into modern banking systems:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"With cryptocurrencies and blockchain, with the use of just a smartphone and access to internet, Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies can be available to populations of people and users without access to the traditional banking system."</p>
Bitcoin as 'digital gold'<p>Still, it could take years for people to start using cryptocurrencies for everyday purchases on a large scale. Despite this, many cryptocurrency advocates see digital currencies, particularly Bitcoin, as a way to store value—digital gold, essentially.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I don't think Bitcoin is going to be used as a transactional currency anytime in the next five years," billionaire investor Mike Novogratz recently told <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-23/novogratz-says-bitcoin-is-digital-gold-not-a-currency-for-now?srnd=markets-vp" target="_blank">Bloomberg</a>. "Bitcoin is being used as a store of value. [...] "Bitcoin as a gold, as digital gold, is just going to keep going higher. More and more people are going to want it as some portion of their portfolio."</p><p>There are obvious parallels between gold and Bitcoin: Both are mined, do not degrade over time, are finite in supply, and aren't directly tied to the value of fiat currency, making them <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-gold-inflation/gold-as-an-inflation-hedge-well-sort-of-idUSKCN1GD516" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relatively invulnerable to inflation</a>. The obvious objection is that the price of Bitcoin, and cryptocurrencies in general, is far more volatile than gold.</p><p>But for investors who believe the inherent value of cryptocurrency technology will prove itself over the long term, these price fluctuations are just bumps on the long road to the future of currency. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It's no longer a debate if crypto is a thing, if Bitcoin is an asset, if the blockchain is going to be part of the financial infrastructure," Novogratz said. "It's not if, it's when, and so every single company has to have a plan now."</p>
Singapore has approved the sale of a lab-grown meat product in an effort to secure its food supplies against disease and climate change.
Approve for your dining pleasure<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dd3f57f8baf14e654812d30a309d1f17"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/307gysA18_E?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><a href="https://www.ju.st/en-us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Eat Just</a>, a company that produces animal-alternative food products, announced the news earlier this week. In what the company is calling a world first, Singapore has given it permission for a small-scale commercial launch of their GOOD Meat brand product line. For the initial run, the cultured chicken meat will be sold as an ingredient in "chicken bites."</p><p>"Singapore has long been a leader in innovation of all kinds, from information technology to biologics to now leading the world in building a healthier, safer food system. I'm sure that our regulatory approval for cultured meat will be the first of many in Singapore and in countries around the globe," Josh Tetrick, co-founder and CEO of Eat Just, <a href="https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20201201006251/en/Eat-Just-Granted-World%E2%80%99s-First-Regulatory-Approval-for-Cultured-Meat" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">said in a release</a>.</p><p>According to the release, Eat Just underwent an extensive safety review by the Singapore Food Agency. It provided officials "details on the purity, identity and stability of chicken cells during the manufacturing process, as well as a detailed description of the manufacturing process which demonstrated that harvested cultured chicken met quality controls and a rigorous food safety monitoring system." It also demonstrated the consistency of its production by running more than 20 cycles in its 1,200-liter bioreactors.</p><p>While Eat Just did not offer details on its propriety process, it likely follows <a href="https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24032080-400-accelerating-the-cultured-meat-revolution/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">one similar to other lab-grown meats</a>. It starts with muscle cell samples drawn from a living animal. Technicians then isolate stem cells from the sample and culture them <em>in vitro</em>. These cultured stem cells are then placed in a bioreactor, essentially a fermenter for fleshy cells. The bioreactor contains scaffolding materials to keep the growing tissue from falling apart as well as a growth material—the sugars, salts, and other nutrients the tissue needs to grow. As the cells grow, they begin to differentiate into the muscle, fat, and other cells of meat tissue. Once grown, the tissues are formed into a meat product to be shipped to restaurants and supermarkets.</p>
An abattoir abatement?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg2Mjg5OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyODg1NDI3N30.AYmFJfWQbPjK-o1IatyFHL-OLjcfXBMmQKYyvz4oT3s/img.jpg?width=980" id="8a82d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="93f824fe4c6f397ab2b65e4665847e71" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A graph showing the number of animals slaughtered in the United States per year from 1961–2018.
Credit: Our World in Data<p>Singapore's approval is an important step in support for clean meats—so-called because they don't require animal slaughter and would likely leave a reduced carbon footprint—but hurdles remain before widespread adoption is possible.</p><p>The most glaring is the price. The first lab-grown hamburger was eaten in London in 2013. <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-23576143" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">It cost roughly $330,000</a>. As with any new technology, investment, iteration, and improved manufacturing will see the price drop substantially and quickly. For comparison, Eat Just's chicken will be priced equivalent to premium chicken.</p><p>Other hurdles include up-scaling production, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00373-w" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the need for further research</a>, and developing techniques to reliably produce in-demand meats such as fish and beef. Finally, not all countries may be as receptive as Singapore. Countries with large, entrenched meat industries may protect this legacy industry through a protracted and difficult regulatory process. Though, the meat industry itself is investing in lab-grown meat. Tyson Foods, for example, has <a href="https://euromeatnews.com/Article-Tyson-Foods-announces-investment-in-clean-meat/697" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">invested in the food-tech startup Memphis Meats</a>, the company that debuted the world's first beef meatball.</p><p>"I would imagine what will happen is the U.S., Western Europe and others will see what Singapore has been able to do, the rigours of the framework that they put together. And I would imagine that they will try to use it as a template to put their own framework together," <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-eat-just-singapore/singapore-approves-sale-of-lab-grown-meat-in-world-first-idUSKBN28C06Z" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tetrick told Reuter's during an interview</a>.</p><p>Regardless of the challenges, the demand for meat substitutes is present and growing. In 2020, plant-based substitutes like Beyond Meat and Impossible foods <a href="https://bigthink.com/coronavirus/plant-based-meat" target="_self">gained a significant foothold in supermarkets</a> as meat-packing factories became coronavirus hotspots. The looming threat of climate change has also turned people away from meat as animal products. Livestock production is environmentally taxing and leaves <a href="http://css.umich.edu/factsheets/carbon-footprint-factsheet" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a much larger carbon footprint</a> than grain and vegetable production. </p><p>Then there's the moral concern of animal cruelty. In 2018 alone, 302 million cows, 656 million turkeys, 1.48 billion pigs, and a gob-smacking 68 billion chickens were <a href="https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/animals-slaughtered-for-meat" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">slaughtered for meat worldwide</a>. And those figures do not include chickens killed in dairy or egg production.</p><p>If brought to scale and widely available, clean meats could become serious competitors to traditional meat. <a href="https://bigthink.com/technology-innovation/meat-alternatives" target="_self">One report has even predicted</a> that 60 percent of the meat people eat by 2040 won't come from slaughtered animals. It could be just the thing for people looking for a meat substitute but who find tofurkey as distasteful as, well tofurkey.</p>