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UW-Madison to offer pharmacy master's program in psychoactive drugs

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Drug study

A tray used to serve doses of psilocybin to study participants sits in a room at at Rennebohm Hall at UW-Madison.

UW-Madison, which has been studying psychedelic drugs to treat depression and other conditions, is taking another step to embrace the emerging topic of psychoactive medicine by starting a pharmacy master’s program in the field this fall.

The School of Pharmacy’s Psychoactive Pharmaceutical Investigation master’s program is the first of its kind in the country, said Cody Wenthur, an assistant professor of pharmacy and director of the program.

The fully online program aims to train students to develop and seek approval for psychoactive drugs such as psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” for which studies have shown promise for depression. Another psychoactive drug, MDMA, better known as the street drug ecstasy, has shown promise for post-traumatic stress disorder, and such substances are also being studied to treat anxiety and addiction.

“If the data continue to look promising for the clinical trials, then there’s going to be a big need to fill positions as this industry continues to grow,” Wenthur said.

With high levels of suicide and opioid overdoses in the U.S., and approved drugs for depression and PTSD not effective for a significant portion of patients, “anything that can help reverse those extremely worrisome outcomes will be met with a great deal of enthusiasm,” he said.

The market for psychoactive treatments, including psychedelics and cannabinoids, is expected to grow nearly 20% a year, with a value of $100 billion by 2030, Wenthur said.

The master’s program will cover the science, history, ethics and legal environment surrounding the drugs, he said. Most psychedelics are Schedule 1, meaning they are banned, though ketamine, known as “special K,” is approved as an anesthetic and used clinically for depression, including at UW Health.

The Food and Drug Administration has given “breakthrough therapy” designation to psilocybin for depression and MDMA for PTSD, indicating support for potential approval if studies pan out.

Wenthur said about 30 students are initially expected to enroll in the 31-credit, two-year master’s program, which in 2022 will also start offering a one-year, accelerated option. A 12-credit capstone certificate will also be available.

UW-Madison, along with Johns Hopkins University, Yale University, New York University and the University of California San Francisco, are sites of a phase 2 study of psilocybin for depression. The study is sponsored by the Madison-based Usona Institute, a nonprofit co-founded in 2014 by Bill Linton, CEO of Fitchburg-based Promega Corp.

An earlier campus study of psilocybin found the drug to be safe in healthy volunteers. In a tranquil treatment room filled with colorful artwork at the pharmacy school, a dozen people took escalating doses of the drug over several months, with guides experienced in meditation assisting the subjects as they experienced their “trip.”

A phase 3 study of MDMA for PTSD, at UW-Madison and 15 other sites around the country, was sponsored by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies in Santa Cruz, California.

Wenthur said other studies at UW-Madison plan to evaluate psilocybin for addiction to opioids and methamphetamine. Another aims to see if a psychedelic experience is necessary for psilocybin to have a therapeutic effect.

The market for psychoactive treatments, including psychedelics and cannabinoids, is expected to grow nearly 20% a year.


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