Somewhere in the remote Mazatec mountains, a shaman conducts a healing ritual with the sacred mushroom to treat ailments such as alcohol addiction and depression. The mushrooms are brewed into tea and given to you in a ceremonial cup. Meanwhile, in North America the ceremonial cup isn’t filled with tea from the sacred mushroom. It’s filled with water to help you swallow a pill of synthetically engineered psilocybin, the main psychoactive ingredient of the sacred mushroom.
In an attempt to harness the potential of psychedelics, we’ve isolated purified compounds, and packed synthetic psilocybin into a pill. It’s a means to comply with rigorous regulations set by the US Food and Drug Administration’s Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP). It also allows scientists to control variables in clinical trials, and consequently help physicians accurately dose treatments. However the process to obtain the ingredients for synthetic psilocybin in research/academia is lengthy and expensive. It requires special equipment, extensive testing, and several stages of purification. These methods are not conducive to large scale production. John Hopkins University paid between $7,000 and $10,000 per gram of psilocybin. That’s 13x the cost of mushrooms on the black market. Scientists are paying a premium while mushrooms on the street cost a small fraction of the price.
Why not just grow mushrooms? Well growing mushrooms takes significantly more time and space. It’s not an effective way to deliver medicine in a pharmaceutical setting as dosage levels are inconsistent. So researchers are on the hunt for a method to bring down the cost of producing psilocybin that can scale for industrial production. In Denmark, a group of researchers have found a way to make psilocybin with a common kitchen ingredient, yeast. And at Miami University, J. Andrew Jones and his research team have figured out how to produce biologically derived psilocybin using e.coli, the same bacteria you can find living in your gut. It’s a fermentation process that is “very similar to making beer,” Jones said. E.coli is put into an environment where it feeds off glucose (sugar), then the cells divide and reproduce. While the process of creating synthetic psilocybin needs to be purified at various stages of the process, Jones only needs to purify once. In doing so, there’s limited use of toxic elements in the purification process. That saves time and cuts down on costs. While Jones is not the first to use the fermentation process to create pharmaceutical drugs, he is the first to do it with psilocybin.
In the end whether you use a synthetic or natural process to produce psilocybin, the final product is chemically the same. And as the sacred mushroom continues to evolve, investors are eager to have a stake. Investor PsyBio partnered with Jones, his research team, and Miami University to further research other psychedelic compounds, like DMT, to achieve similar therapeutic benefits.
“Science is sometimes quite depressing,” Jones said. “When you do experiments you don’t know what the outcome is. 9 times out of 10 it fails. You have great ideas and then they don’t come to fruition.” But now, undergraduate students on Jones’s research team are co-inventors of the patent “they’re seeing how the work they’re doing in the lab is directly relating to a drug that could impact society in the really near term.”