State Watch

Living with long-term cancer is depressing. Texas doctors say psychedelics could help

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Psychedelic magic mushrooms are being researched to see the benefits of psilocybin used in psychedelic therapy. There is currently movement to legalize or decriminalize plant medicine because of it’s therapeutic potential.

The rising effectiveness of treatments for advanced cancer has left a growing number of patients in terrible limbo.

But psilocybin — the active compound derived from magic mushrooms — can help these patients find relief, a group of Texas-based scientists wrote in the International Journal of Gynecological Cancer on Tuesday.

That’s part of a new openness in Texas — and the medical community as a whole — to ever-broader applications for the mind-expanding substances.

Next year the signatories of Tuesday’s letter — a group of researchers at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston — will begin a study investigating whether psilocybin can help restore the mental health of the increasing number of patients living with advanced cancers.

That group of long-haulers is a cadre that largely didn’t exist a decade ago, said Amit Moran, a cancer biologist at MD Anderson.

“Ten years ago, you were cured, or you died,” Moran told The Hill.

But a rise of targeted cancer treatments has created a new group of patients living on the expanding frontiers of cancer treatment.

“More and more patients survive longer with cancer — they can live two years, five years, even 10 years,” Moran said.

Many of these patients, Moran said, “experience anxiety, depression and existential crisis.”

In particular, women facing late-stage ovarian cancer face overwhelming anxiety and “existential distress” as they stare down the prospect of a painful death and leaving their families behind, Moran and his coauthors wrote.

“These people know that one day they’ll do scan and see progression [in their tumors],” he said. “And they don’t know if that will be 6 months or 10 years.” 

Moran and his colleagues are looking into whether psilocybin could help, as this compound has been shown to offer considerable relief to those dying of terminal cancer — but has never been tested on those living with it.

“Our goal is to alleviate those symptoms to allow them to go back to functioning,” Moran said.

Both the journal letter and MD Anderson study are part of a new renaissance in the medical applications of “psychedelics” — an umbrella category that lumps together such pharmacologically distant compounds as psilocybin, MDMA and ketamine.

While these have very different structures and work on different parts of the brain, they share a common ability to help a patient radically — and often rapidly — reframe their relationship to previously intolerable life circumstances.

A 2021 meta-analysis of terminally ill patients who had received psychedelics for existential distress found that  both classical psychedelics like psilocybin and LSD and “atypical” ones such as MDMA and ketamine left the dying with “positive effects on existential and spiritual well-being, quality of life, acceptance, and reduction of anxiety and depression.”

Another study of psilocybin specifically found that a single dose could leave even healthy individuals with “long-lasting increases in mindfulness.”

These findings have been persuasive enough to convince even Texas’ highly conservative legislature — partly because of the state’s disproportionate number of veterans of U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom returned emotionally and mentally scarred.

In 2021, the Texas legislature passed a bipartisan law authorizing the state’s Department of Health to begin studying the use of MDMA, ketamine and psilocybin for a wide range of physical and emotional ailments.

“To me, this may be one of the most hopeful pieces of legislation that members of the Legislature have the opportunity to consider this session,” former Gov. Rick Perry (R) told reporters in 2021.

By November of 2021, the first study was underway: a joint state, federal and university effort to understand whether psilocybin could help alleviate post-traumatic stress disorders in veterans.

The prevalence of psychological suffering has blunted the partisan nature around psychedelics, one researcher on that study suggested to Houston Public Media.

“I think many people are at the point of ‘I will try anything,’ whether they’re conservative, anti-drug, whatever it is,” said Lynette Averill of the Texas-based Baylor College of Medicine.

Psychedelic research remains in its infancy, Moran noted. Of the more than 140,000 active clinical trials in the country, only 79 are looking into psychedelics. Of those, only a dozen are looking at cancer — and those are all focused on those who are dying. 

While cancer treatments can keep tumors in check for a long time, Moran hopes that psychedelic treatments can “bring them back to the job market, get out of bed, regain their functionality,” he said.

“The goal is not just to give them life — but a life worth living,” he added.

Tags Cancer magic mushrooms psilocybin psychedelics Rick Perry Texas

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