Oct. 30, 2020

MagicMed makes psychedelic molecules to turn trips into treatments

University partner poised to be world leader in molecular derivatives for pharmaceutical use
Peter Facchini stands in the greenhouse in the Faculty of Science
Peter Facchini, MagicMed co-founder and professor, biochemistry, Faulty of Science Adrian Shellard

A company started by researchers at the University of Calgary is raising money, filing patents and manufacturing molecular derivatives of psilocybin for pharmaceutical companies to put to work in new medicines. MagicMed Industries is building the “Psybrary” of novel psychedelic molecular derivatives that drug companies can use to develop treatments for anxiety, depression, migraines and many other brain and mental health conditions.

Studies have shown that psilocybin — the molecule found in magic mushrooms, a psychedelic street drug — has encouraging medicinal uses but it can also cause disturbing side-effects including hallucinations and panic attacks. Modifying the natural molecule is expected to maximize its positive attributes while reducing the negative ones.

The opportunity is a “blank page at this point,” says Dr. Peter Facchini, PhD, MagicMed’s chief scientific officer and professor of biochemistry in the Faculty of Science. “What's going to end up being commercialized as a pharmaceutical is not going to be psilocybin, it's going to be a molecule that is designed based on that backbone structure, but it's going to be different. And it's going to be better in the ways that it needs to be for it to be valuable and safe clinically.”

Initially, MagicMed is focusing on psilocybin derivatives but eventually, it will manufacture derivatives of other psychedelic molecules including MDMA, ketamine, ibogaine, mescaline, and ayahuasca. MagicMed will partner with pharmaceutical and other companies to use the derivatives in the Psybrary to develop new clinical therapies.

“We have the opportunity to be positioned as the world leader, initially, in terms of making all of these different derivatives, as many as you can think of,” says Facchini, pictured above. “The numbers could be staggering in terms of how many derivatives of a basic structure you can make. And then, ultimately, all of those things go through a pipeline of testing until you find the very best ones.”

Dr. Peter Facchini, MagicMed CSO, and Dr. Xue Chen, MagicMed Senior Scientist in the lab, looking at a computer screen

Xue Chen, MagicMed senior scientist, with Peter Facchini in the lab.

Adrian Shellard

'Symbiotic' partnership with the university

MagicMed and UCalgary have entered a partnership that gives the company access to the university’s facilities, research and innovation capabilities, a model that can be used in a number of different research areas. “There's millions of dollars worth of equipment, not to mention the world-class intellectual expertise, all of which is accessible because of this ongoing, symbiotic relationship,” says Dr. Joseph Tucker, PhD, MagicMed’s CEO and adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the Cumming School of Medicine.  

“The university has really become an engine for creating new companies,” he says. “The university has recognized the role they can play to benefit society, more directly than by simply creating smart people, but instead through connecting research and discovery  and transforming it to create solutions for society.”

The university is furthering such collaborations through the innovation ecosystem by deploying a “partnership playbook,” which outlines how to create value while protecting academic integrity. Collaborations between the university and community or industry members not only lead to solutions for society, but also drive new research agendas and opportunities, and provide direction to fundamental research activity as well.

Dr. Joseph Tucker, MagicMed CEO

Joseph Tucker.

From illicit to licit

There has been fringe research into the medicinal value of psychedelics for decades, going all the way back to Timothy Leary’s “Turn on, tune in, drop out” in the 1960s. Facchini points to a few chemists who have “played around” with the compounds for years.

“They've often tested what they make on themselves, and their friends, and they score the effect. But that's nowhere near what's sufficient in order to have something approved, or a suite of compounds approved that can be prescribed. It’s not just, ‘Here's a drug. Take it, you'll feel better,’ but, ‘Here's a suite of compounds tailored for different patients and different situations, that need to be prescribed and monitored appropriately.’"

Scholarly research into psychedelics “has been hindered for decades by the fact that they have been considered illicit compounds,” says Facchini.

But that is changing. More recent and robust research showing that psychedelic compounds have great promise in treating a myriad of conditions and is triggering more scholarly work and a new industry.

“The psychedelics industry seems to be, suddenly out of apparently nowhere, becoming a thing,” says Tucker. “It seems to have been sparked by some good, but early, clinical studies being run by a number of well-regarded, internationally renowned, organizations that said, ‘Yes, we know these are widely regarded as recreational party drugs, but look, when dosed and managed properly they’re actually having some positive effects on these genuine clinical indications.’”

The MagicMed founders predict that any lingering stigma around the use of psychedelic drugs will dissipate as pharmaceutical treatments reach clinics and begin to help people with brain and mental health conditions.

“When the mainstream of science and business and medicine get involved and start promoting and developing improved versions of these psychedelics into bona fide medicines, rather than something you pick out of a jar at a house party," says Facchini, “it doesn't take very long for the acceptance to grow.”

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