Cancer Therapy Could Be Psychedelic



Researchers combine with weeks of psychotherapy with a single dose of Psilocybin to improve the quality of life of recently diagnosed cancer patients

Kristina Hayhurst, Contributing Writer

Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health Dr. Stephen Ross gave a lecture about the future of psychedelic science at the World’s Fair Nano on Sept. 16, delving into the potential of psychedelics in the world of medicine.

This speech came only months after Ross and his associates finished their experiment called “Patient Experiences of Psilocybin-Assisted Psychotherapy: An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis.” This paper, published last April, analyzed the outcome of giving a one-time dose of synthetically-created Psilocybin, combined with weeks of psychotherapy, to recently diagnosed cancer patients with high levels of depression and anxiety.

Psilocybin is a naturally occurring psychedelic prodrug that is an active component in some psychedelic mushrooms and LSD. Alexander Belser, a fellow in the Department of Applied Psychology at Steinhardt and a contributor to the experiment write-up, explained that the experiment placed emphasis both on the singular dose of Psilocybin and on the controlled and comfortable environment created by the therapists.

“It’s important that [the patients] are not just getting the drug,” Belser said. “They work with a therapy team over many months to establish basic trust, safety and a deep level of rapport so that when they do the work, if they get anxious, they can resolve that within the course of treatment.”

The results of the research were overtly positive, with 78 percent of the participants stating that it increased their quality of life and 68 percent rating it as one of top five most meaningful experiences of their lives. According to the study, the treatment also positively contributed to the way patients viewed themselves, the course of their lives, their faith and their acceptance of death.

“What’s promising about it, and why I’m so excited about it, is that in our trial both acutely and in the six and a half month follow up, there was a response rate from 60 to 80 percent for anxiety and depression in our subjects,” Belser said. “That’s double the leading treatment for cancer related anxiety and depression.”

Belser said that the use of Psilocybin is not limited to cancer patients. One study at NYU’s School of Medicine is currently working on a trial pertaining to patients with refractory alcoholism. Belser also said they were beginning to do research into giving the treatment to people with no defined mental or clinical illness, specifically targeting leaders in religious and spiritual groups to see how they interact with the drug.

“We’re also working with some healthy people too because people have, often times, a strong religious experience with this medicine,” Belser said. “We’ve been giving Psilocybin to people who are religious leaders … across multiple faiths and wisdom tradition backgrounds.”

As for the future of psychedelic science, Dr. Jeffrey Guss, a clinical assistant professor of Psychiatry at Langone and contributor to Ross’s paper, said their next goal was to get Psilocybin scientifically re- scheduled from a Schedule 1 drug, defined as having no medical value, to a Schedule 2 drug that could be used by some doctors.

“It’s our position that psychedelics have medical value and are not addictive at all,” Guss said. “It’s our goal to generate the kind of data that the FDA will respect and reschedule.”

Oregon is already taking initiative to decriminalize the use of psychedelics. The Oregon Psilocybin Society is moving to get a referendum on the ballot in 2020 to legalize Psilocybin. Not only would this decriminalize the drug in Oregon, but it would also give terminally ill cancer patients access to it near the end of their lives.

As for recreational use, Guss emphasizes that psychedelics come from a very cultural and spiritual origin. Mushrooms and teas like Ayahuasca were and still are used as a part of healing, transformative and guided rituals. When it comes to using the drug for fun, Dr. Guss advises against it.

“The more recreational and fun oriented the intention is, the less powerful, transformative and therapeutic it will be,” Guss said. “I think taking mushrooms recreationally trivializes what they can be and what they can do.”

A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Sept. 25 print edition. Email Kristina Hayhurst at [email protected].