Therapeutic Psychedelics Leader Judy Blumstock

By: Jamie Bussin

Judy Blumstock is the Founder, CEO and Director of Diamond Therapeutics. She has over 25 years of venture capital and private equity experience, spanning early to late-stage investments in life sciences and biotechnology. Diamond Therapeutics is developing psilocybin-based low dose, non-hallucinogenic, treatments for anxiety and other neuropsychological conditions.

The Tonic: What was the impetus to found a medical psychedelics company? Judy Blumstock: By way of background, I’ve been working for my entire career on investments in life sciences. I think that really does colour the company, which is medical and drug development in nature. There was an article I read in 2006 in the Economist called “The God Pill”. It was all about the work that was going on at Johns Hopkins by Roland Griffiths, a preeminent researcher in the area. He was using high doses of psychedelics and testing people who had spent their lives in contemplation (meditators, etc.) and found that psychedelics gave them that same feeling of oneness and peace.

TT: You started Diamond Therapeutics many years after the Economist article though. The timing initially wasn’t right for a variety of reasons. The project had been in my mind for many years. We founded the company in 2018 as a result of the increasing amount of literature in the psychedelic space, an increasing amount of research particularly pertaining to high doses that looked really promising and also a de-stigmatization of psychedelics because of that research which showed that psychedelics were not particularly toxic or addictive. 

TT: Was the legalization of cannabis a factor? JB: I have to say that the legalization of cannabis also contributed to the de-stigmatization of psychedelics. That set the stage for a greater enthusiasm to investigate other molecules.

TT: I would imagine that it would be much easier to raise funds after the regulation process and investments being legitimized in the cannabis area.  JB: Yes, exactly.

TT: What excites you about the potential for the therapeutic use of psychedelics? JB: I’m not sure if people are aware of this but 50% of prescription drugs are actually derived from compounds that were first found in herbs and plants and mushrooms. For example, antibiotics, like penicillin. Aspirin is derived from the bark of white willow trees. In reading about psilocybin, I thought this is a really potent psychoactive compound, what else could it do? Why wouldn’t this be the basis for a pharmaceutical compound? What is going on with the molecule that makes people feel so differently?

TT: Are there any myths about psychedelics that you can dispel? JB: Within the psychedelic sector there’s a lot of open-mindedness. But beyond that, for a lot of reasons, psychedelics still get a bad rap and get lumped in with evil drugs (ie. heroin). But now it is quite well established that they aren’t habit-forming and relatively non-toxic compared to other drugs. You have to consume a massive quantity of mushrooms before it would be toxic. That isn’t to say you wouldn’t be very, very, very loopy. But it’s not going to shut your organs down like alcohol or morphine.

TT: Are there any myths that you’d like to dispel? JB: We’re in the process of working to dispel the notion that you have to experience a psychedelic response to get a benefit from psychedelics. That is a big question mark out there now in the psychedelic community. The compound’s mystical hallucinogenic aspect is very intriguing.  People are drawn to that narrative that the mystical experience and the curative treatment go hand in glove. Our theory and what we’re pursuing is a very low dose of psilocybin or other molecules that would be free of hallucinogenic outcomes by design.

TT: Why is the decoupling of the hallucinogenic experience from the treatment important? JB: If we can take away the hallucinogenic effect, more people will have access to the drug. Not everyone wants to hallucinate. That process takes time and money. 

TT: So the high dose experience isn’t relevant? JB: I’m not saying that the high dose mystical experience isn’t beneficial. For certain patients it may be the only way forward. I think the companies with clinics administering the high dosages should be encouraged to continue with their work. But we’re focusing on the low dose which would be for different indications and more broadly accessible. 

TT: What sort of neuropsychiatric conditions could be treated with low dose psilocybin medicines? JB: We just don’t know. There’s a lot of speculation. You don’t know for sure until you do a clinical trial. But we are looking at the treatment of anxiety. And in a separate trial we’ll be looking at people who suffer from demoralization. We do want to look at other applications over time.

TT: How does psilocybin work to treat those conditions? JB: This is actually an unanswered question. We know that psilocybin hits several serotonin receptors. But the exact mechanism isn’t clear. Part of our company is working on elucidating the mechanism more precisely. But it is fair to say that nobody really knows what the cascade of events is. 

TT: Are there any risks with low dose psilocybin therapies? JB: We’ve completed a phase one clinical study which is a safety and dosage study starting with very low doses. We didn’t really see any adverse effects. I’d say that the biggest risk is if you’re taking low doses, but perhaps not keeping track of how many doses you’re taking, you might have a hallucinogenic reaction.

TT: Are there any contraindications that you’ve come across? JB: We haven’t ourselves. Our trials have a lot of exclusion criteria (i.e. those with diagnosed disorders of family history of disorders). We’re testing healthy younger people so far. Would the therapies have adverse effects on older people or those with pre-existing conditions? We don’t know at this point.

TT: What is the current regulatory status of therapeutic psychedelics in Canada? JB: They are controlled substances under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act. Controlled substances are categorized by their perceived danger. Schedule 1 controlled substances (ie. MDMA and Ketamien) pose the highest risks and the penalties for their unauthorized use are more serious. Psychedelics, and that includes psilocybin, are Schedule 3 controlled substances. All uses of controlled substances are prohibited unless there is an exemption under the Act or the regulations provide otherwise. Exemptions are granted under section 56 of the Act or under the special access program. These provide very narrow avenues for access for individuals whose circumstances are exceptional. Broader access is possible through existing regulatory pathways. Meaning that we have to get approved medications through clinical trials to show that they are safe and effective. And that’s what we’re working on.

TT: Where are you in the process? JB: Clinical trials take place in three phases. We completed phase one this summer. Phase one is testing with healthy volunteers to see if there are serious negative outcomes and at what doses people begin to feel impaired; trying to determine a dose that would be safe for people to take in the home. Phase two will be with patients verifying that the drug is actually effective. And then if it is effective, we’ll do a much bigger and broader study. To get the drug through phase two and three will take five years.  

TT: Are there learnings from the legalization of cannabis? JB: I’m not an expert in that field, but it seems like the medical research into cannabis in Canada isn’t as alive as it could be. People are using cannabis therapeutically but there’s not much clinical research. So, I think, doctors are reluctant to prescribe cannabis. Not because it might not work, but because there isn’t enough evidence that it will work. 

TT: Well a lot of the research was empirical or anecdotal as opposed to clinical. Is that the case with psychedelics? JB: There are a lot of clinical studies going on in the psychedelic field. These studies are very very expensive to conduct. We’re asking people to spend millions of dollars to ascertain whether psychedelics work at the doses we think they will. Why would they make that investment if the drug is already widely available on an over-the-counter basis? There is no impetus to do the study. That’s really a shame and we hope that won’t happen with psychedelics. We think that more people will benefit if there is research done.

TT: But there are people already microdosing with mushrooms for anxiety without medical guidance now. Is that concerning to you? JB: As a human? No. I think it would be very presumptuous of me or anyone else to dictate to anyone else how they should make themselves feel better. Unfortunately anxiety and depression are huge issues. So if there is something you can do that is relatively safe, far be it for us to have an opinion on that. There are people who won’t take an unregulated or a substance without a prescription. We’re trying to help them.

TT: To that end, what are you studying at Diamond Therapeutics? JB: We have two studies that we’ve planned. The phase one study in Canada was a double-blind placebo control, single ascending dose study looking at pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics of very low doses of psilocybin in healthy human subjects. This is the first time this type of study was done at low dosages. Based on that we established a safe tolerable dose range. The next study will be a clinical trial in Canada for the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder. We’re also working on an investigator level study at the University of Alabama and that will look at the effect of psilocybin on demoralization. 

TT: Where do you see the therapeutic psychedelic industry in 10 years?  JB: I’m very optimistic. I think that there will be several prescribed low dose psychedelic medications that will be approved and available for a variety of indications. I think there will be high dose treatments in specialized settings as well. But we think we’ll be at the forefront of low dose drugs that will be prescribed for home use. Our broader goals are to bring relief to the mental health pandemic. It is an area that historically has been underinvested in. I think we’re at the point where we have new tools and capabilities that can really help the treatment of mental health.

Jamie Bussin is the Publisher of TheTonic Magazine and is rather curious about the potential for microdosing psychedelics.