Betting on botanicals: Australian DMT research scores $4.5 million


Psychae Therapeutics bagged the raise from Tin Alley Ventures and the University of Melbourne’s pre-seed investment fund.
Ayahuasca has been used in South America for thousands of years. The psychedelic compound in the tea is DMT. Courtesy: Getty/Mark Fox Photography

Just six months ago, Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Association (TGA) authorised psychiatrists to prescribe MDMA and psilocybin to treat patients with specific, treatment-resistant mental health conditions. Prior to the TGA reclassification, MDMA and psilocybin psychedelics were Schedule 9 Prohibited substances in Australia.

Now, Melbourne company Psychae Therapeutics is working toward having DMT permitted to treat mental health conditions too.

So, what on earth is DMT, you may ask?

“It occurs naturally in a number of different plants,” Daniel Perkins, the co-founder and co-CEO of Psychae Therapeutics, tells Forbes Australia.

“DMT is a psychedelic compound chemically quite similar to psilocybin. It is the primary psychedelic in the South American brew of Ayahuasca.”

Ayahuasca has been used by Indigenous populations for thousands of years and is sourced from Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia.

Perkins sees potential for the psychedelic compound found in ayahuasca, to join psilocybin and MDMA in being permitted to treat mental illness. And he is looking closer to home than the Amazon, to source it.

“It occurs naturally in a number of Australian plants. It also occurs endogenously in the brains of humans and other animals at very low levels,” says Perkins.

In addition to founding a company spearheading DMT research and drug development, Perkins is a registered psychotherapist and an expert in the impact of psychedelics on mental health. He works with the University of Melbourne as a senior research fellow, and Swinburne University as adjunct Associate Professor of Mental Health.

“MDMA and psilocybin are definitely leading the pack in terms of psychedelics and Western applications,” says Perkins. “We are looking at DMT-based medicines, which are not quite as advanced, but we feel potentially have even more therapeutic potential when used for mental and addictive disorders.”

The $4.5 million fundraise that Psychae Therapeutics announced this week will support a Phase 2 clinical trial of DMT. Phase 1 trials should be finished by the end of this year.

“We have identified plant sources of our target compounds that can be grown and harvested at commercial scale,” the company website reads.

Psychae Therapeutics is partnering with two Australian scientific powerhouses to take the research to the next level. A unique MDA extraction and purification technique has been developed, and a standardised pharmaceutical-grade botanical extract is being created.

“Agriculture Victoria are a key industry partner. They are working on plant optimisation and accelerated breeding. With CSIRO we’re looking at the actual manufacture formulation of a pharmaceutical grade medicine,” says Perkins.

The company has also developed a psychological therapeutic treatment model to support patients who choose to try DMT to alleviate mental health issues.

“It’s not going to be for everyone,” Perkins says. “Existing therapies work pretty well for many people, but for some, they just don’t achieve an adequate response. This is for someone with more complex mental health conditions who isn’t responding to other treatments.”

He points to intolerability of traditional depression medication, potential side effects in patients, and the possibility of relapse.

“It’s a very different model to the antidepressant model where you take a pill, everyday, sometimes forever,” says Perkins. “With psychedelics, it’s usually one to three high-dose sessions. You have a very full altered-state experience.”

Those experiences have shown potential to expedite relief from mental illness.

“Psychedelics appear to have this very potent way of being able to work through neurobiological and psychotherapeutic effects,” says Perkins. “Neuro-biologically, they’re inducing neuroplasticity, and modulating brain networks and brain area. There is this aspect of highly accelerated, insightful emotional processing.”

Psychae Therapeutics is now studying which mental health conditions can benefit from DMT-driven emotional processing acceleration.

“We have published papers looking at anxiety and depressive disorders — very significant reported improvements — also, alcohol and drug use disorders. We feel like trauma and PTSD is another area where there could really be very potent effects,” says Perkins.

And that could amount to a very large global target market for DMT botanicals.

Perkins’ partner in Psychae Therapeutics is University of Melbourne honorary research fellow Jerome Sarris, who says innovative interventions are urgently needed.

“World Health Organisation data estimate that around one billion people are living with mental health disorders, which are often chronic and intransigent,” says Sarris.

Tin Alley Ventures, the VC fund set up by the University of Melbourne to invest in startups, sees its $4.5 million co-investment in the company as helping to address a ‘significant global mental health epidemic.’

“Psychae’s focus on developing high-quality, data-driven medical-grade medicines, accompanied by innovative new therapies and treatment platforms makes them a highly attractive investment for our fund,” says Tin Alley Ventures managing partner Dr Andrew McLean.

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