As interest grows in the possible therapeutic effects of psilocybin — a key active compound in so-called “magic mushrooms”– University of Guelph plant science researchers are preparing to begin research into this promising field.
After two years of effort, Dr. Max Jones and Dr. Gale Bozzo, professors in the Ontario Agricultural College’s Department of Plant Agriculture, have received a Health Canada dealer’s licence that will allow them and their teams to cultivate mushrooms that are known to produce psilocybin and other compounds.
U of G is one of the first Canadian universities to be granted a licence to cultivate mushrooms that produce psilocybin, which remains a controlled substance in Canada.
“We are very excited about this approval as it will allow us to study these psychedelic mushrooms to better understand their biology and genetics, examine what other functional compounds they might contain, and provide well-characterized and chemically consistent material for preclinical and potentially clinical evaluation,” said Jones.
Psilocybin has emerged in recent years as a promising new avenue to treat mental illnesses such as depression, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Several ongoing human studies use psilocybin for “psychedelic-assisted therapy” along with psychotherapy. While clinical research into the psychiatric uses of the psychedelic is still in its infancy, early results suggest the drug offers vast potential.
What’s interesting about psilocybin is that at least 200 species of mushrooms produce it, said Jones.
Mushrooms likely producing other interesting compounds too
“Those species aren’t that closely related; they’re diverse,” he said. “So that makes scientists like me wonder: what else are these mushrooms producing? If you have 200 species producing a compound that affects the human brain, it’s likely they are producing other interesting compounds, too.”
That area of research interests Dr. Melissa Perreault, a professor in the Ontario Veterinary College’s Department of Biomedical Sciences. She studies the molecular and cellular mechanisms involved in the pathology of neuropsychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders such as depression or autism spectrum disorders, and those associated with cognitive impairments such as schizophrenia or Alzheimer’s disease.
“There are many already working with psilocybin, but we’re interested in the potential biological activity of some of the other compounds in these mushrooms and whether they have any therapeutic value alone or in combination with psilocybin,” she said.
Perreault plans to examine other compounds to determine which signalling pathways they might affect, especially substances that could affect synaptic function, inflammatory pathways and oxidative stress, which are known to contribute to brain diseases and disorders.
“If there is any potential therapeutic value in these compounds, we would then bring them into some of the models I work with, such as those used to study specific aspects of depression or autism, to examine their therapeutic effects.”
Aim to create reliable supply of psilocybin-producing mushrooms
Future research into psychedelic-producing mushrooms will require a consistent and reliable supply of psilocybin-producing mushrooms, which is what Jones hopes to offer.
“There is a real need for a public supply of these mushrooms,” he said, adding that a few private companies are licensed to produce these mushrooms but that commercial suppliers often create proprietary formulations.
“We aim to create a supply of mushrooms to be used for preclinical and perhaps clinical trials in which the genetics and cultivation methodologies will be fully disclosed to researchers and the public.”
That work will take place in a high-security facility on campus that meets Health Canada standards.
The research team also hopes to develop a synthetic medium to grow the mushrooms. Currently, they are grown on grains or manure, but the team aims to develop a more consistent and reproducible medium.