The High-stakes Race to Develop New Psychedelic Drugs | MarketingwithAnoy

“This is my life,” Wallach says. “There’s nothing else I’d rather do. If I got a billion dollars today, the first thing I’d do would be to build a super lab.” When Compass came calling, he finally got the golden opportunity to pursue that dream. Maybe not a billion dollar super lab. But his own laboratory.

In pop culture, psychedelia is a Day-Glo blanket of mandalas, black-light ink, tie-dye and phat pants emblazoned with lime green alien heads. In their various states of synthesis and manufacture, psychoactive substances are decidedly unkaleidoscopic: brownish, yellowish, and vaguely rough, like plaque scraped from nicotine-stained teeth. The labs where these substances are synthesized smell like someone burned a Rotten Eggs Yankee Candle.

Last fall I visited Wallach in his lab where he was preparing some N,N-dipropyltryptamine – a legal and extremely potent hallucinogen. Dressed in a faded maroon polo, khakis and thick desert boots, Wallach sets up a reaction in a round-bottomed flask as he explains that in the ’70s scientists were studying DPT for use in psychotherapy. He flits around the lab, blowing moisture out of glassware, sealing tubes with argon gas, dissolving reagents in methanol, and advising me to keep my distance while messing around with substances that are, he warns, “pretty toxic.” It’s like watching a chef show off at a teppanyaki restaurant, slicing and dicing by sheer reflex.

The fall semester is underway, and after the pandemic’s interruption, Wallach has returned to teaching the class. His lab—and its work for Compass—continues. Wallach and his team of mostly 20-somethings weave between a few different offices, testing compounds for purity, sketching molecules in grid-lined notebooks, and preparing potentially mind-expanding substances in discreetly labeled mails to be sent for mouse-twitch tests at a partner laboratory at UC San Diego.

The job is to develop drugs that tickle the 5-HT2A receptor, a cellular protein involved in a number of functions – appetite, imagination, anxiety, sexual arousal. The receptor has been shown to be crucial for understanding the neuropharmacology of the psychedelic experience induced by classical hallucinogens. LSD, mescaline, psilocybin – they all interact with 5-HT2A. (In some circles, the phrase “5-HT2A agonist” has supplanted “psychedelic,” which still carries faint hints of hippie-era hedonism.) “If you design a new version of a classic hallucinogen,” says Wallach, “the first thing what you’re doing is looking at its interaction with that receptor.”

One of Wallach’s goals is to hack how long a psychedelic effect lasts. Full-dose psilocybin trips usually last more than six hours. Hand-me-down hippie wisdom dictates three full days for a proper LSD experience: one to prepare, one to trip, and one to acclimate to the world of awake, unwavering consciousness. From a clinical perspective, such epic sessions are expensive and may not be necessary. Meanwhile, drugs like DMT are acute and intense, with effects lasting only minutes (sometimes called the “businessman’s trip” because it can be enjoyed within a typical lunch hour). Finding what Compass co-founder Lars Wilde calls “the sweet spot” between the length of a journey and clinical effect is just one of Wallach’s many challenges. If he and his team of researchers stumble upon a concoction that’s particularly potent or experientially unique — “cool” is a word that gets thrown around — well, so much the better.

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