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In crowded field of psychedelic startups, Filament CEO makes case for ‘natural’ drugs

A recent boom in psychedelic research has given way to a bumper crop of startups seeking to harness the potential of mind-altering drugs for treating depression, addiction and other conditions.

In this crowded field, Vancouver-based Filament Health has a unique approach: extracting drugs like psilocybin and mescaline from natural sources, including mushrooms and cacti, rather than synthesizing the ingredients in a laboratory.

Filament is studying its mushroom-based psilocybin as a treatment for opioid and stimulant use disorder. And more than a dozen other companies and academic centers are using the company’s drugs in trials of depression, chronic pain and other disorders.

Filament CEO Benjamin Lightburn spoke with The Associated Press about the ethical, therapeutic and medical case for using naturally derived psychedelics. The answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What do you mean by “natural psychedelics” and how are they produced?

A: It means we’re deriving them from natural sources, like plants and fungi, because that is in fact the way that humanity has been interacting with these substances in their natural form for thousands of years. It’s only recently that we had access to synthetic chemical manufacturing techniques.

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Since our products come from natural sources, we believe it allows people to maintain a certain connection to how humans have been ingesting these substances for years and years and to important aspects of many traditional communities.

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A natural product contains much more than just one single active compound, right? And so in the case of magic mushrooms, for instance, they contain much more than just psilocybin. They contain other compounds like psilocin and a dozen or more other active ingredients.

Just like when you drink a cup of coffee there is much more than just caffeine. There’s a whole entourage of different compounds, which in the case of coffee gives it a flavor, aroma and terroir.

Q: Do you think patients will be able to tell the difference when they take these drugs?

A: It’s our hypothesis that the presence of these other compounds may contribute to differences or perhaps even improvements in the therapeutic potential of these complex natural mixtures. After all, these substances did evolve in nature alongside humans.

Q: Your company also prioritizes ethically and sustainably harvesting these plants. How does that work?

A: The iboga plant, which contains the psychedelic ibogaine, is probably the best example of that at Filament. We’ve been working with groups in West Africa, in Gabon, where the iboga plant is indigenous and, in fact, is also involved with important cultural practices by the Bwiti people.

So it’s very important for us to make sure that any source of supply that’s being imported from overseas, it’s being done sustainably, No. 1, of course. And No. 2, that the proper procedures for informed consent with the local indigenous community are put in place and procedures for reciprocity and equitable benefit sharing.

We obviously believe in sharing the benefit of any commercial products that get manufactured back with the local community who, after all, have been stewarding and shepherding this cultural resource for the previous millennia.

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Q: What is the advantage of all of these practices when there are so many competitors in the psychedelic space?

A: We’re really the only one that is focused 100% on natural. And we’ve actually been able to successfully manufacture these products and get them into clinical trials.

There is a ton of interest from different researchers all around the world to use our psychedelic drugs. And there’s a lot of interest, I think, from the investment community to fund our own internal drug development.

If you believe psychedelics are a thing that’s going to be here to stay and you believe that people are going to at least want a choice to have a natural psychedelic product, then I think it’s fair to say that Filament is going to be sticking around for the long haul.

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The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.