$5-million donation boosts psychedelic science in Canada

Lindsay Borthwick
September 29, 2021

Psychedelic research in Canada got a major boost this week with a $5-million donation to Toronto’s University Health Network to establish the Nikean Psychedelic Psychotherapy Research Centre. 

The gift was made by the Nikean Foundation, which was founded in 2019 by entrepreneur Sanjay Singhal to support research and education on the use of psychedelic medicines in mental health care. According to a press release, it is the largest single gift to psychedelic research in Canada. 

Last June, businessman Jim Parker donated $3 million to the University of Calgary to establish the Parker Psychedelic Research Chair — the first of its kind in Canada.

Singhal, who founded and eventually sold Audiobooks.com, has been public about his own diagnosis of bipolar disorder and the need for a new treatment paradigm for mental illness.

"By accepting this gift, UHN is sending a powerful message that Canada is serious about psychedelic research and tackling the existential mental health crisis affecting the masses," he said in a statement about the donation. "We owe it to this generation and the next to begin the healing process, so I encourage others to join Nikean in this significant endeavour.”

Dr. Susan Abbey, psychiatrist-in-chief at UHN's Centre for Mental Health, will be the director of the new centre. The vision is to create an academic and innovation hub in psychedelic science that will focus on research, education and training, and eventually clinical care. They plan to run clinical trials for psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy, and the centre will launch a certificate program, developed in collaboration with The Michener Institute of Education at UHN and the California Institute of Integral Studies, to build capacity for psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy in Canada. 

Mark Haden, the director of Clinical Research at Psygen, a manufacturer of pharmaceutical-grade psychedelic drugs for clinical research and therapeutic use, said the establishment of the new centre will help to legitimize the research.

"Having these kinds of centres embedded within hospitals is really important, because that's where people go when they're sick. But it also legitimizes the process of psychedelic healing in a way that changes public opinion. And as public opinion changes, more and more research centres get opened up,” he said in an interview with Research Money.

Haden is also an adjunct professor at the UBC School of Population and Public Health and the former executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), a Vancouver-based non-profit that has pioneered psychedelic research and education in Canada. The Nikean Foundation funds research trials around the world, including MAPS-led studies.

Psychedelic science is gaining momentum internationally. Evidence is emerging to support the use of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy for a variety of mental health disorders, including treatment-resistant depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and end-of-life distress.

In 2017, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted a breakthrough therapy designation to psilocybin for the treatment of depression and MDMA for PTSD. In 2020, Health Canada granted patients access to psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy to treat end-of-life distress. Through its special access program, it is also expected to grant access to psilocybin and MDMA for the treatment of depression and PTSD, respectively.

Haden said there are many other molecules of interest that could be studied for their effectiveness at treating a variety of different disorders, from eating disorders to addiction to chronic pain.

"Psychedelic treatments are proving to be dramatically more effective than traditional treatments. So that really will help people and it'll also help reduce health care costs," he said.

But he said that as new evidence for psychedelic therapies emerges, it will be important to move beyond philanthropic support. "To move [psychedelic science] forward in a substantial way, we need governments to step up to the plate," he said.


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