Episode 79: Jonathan Sporn – How Psychedelic Drugs Help Erase The Mental Burden In Society | Beginner’s Mind

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Key Takeaways

  • A challenge to mental health drug development is that people with the same mental health disorder do not necessarily exhibit the same biological signs and symptoms
  • Prior to exploration and innovation with psychedelics, mental health treatment has not made significant advancements since the invention of SSRIs in the 1980s
  • Big pharma is not necessarily interested in psychedelics because they don’t know how to fit into the current business model – they can’t make money as is since there’s no inherent innovation or IP
  • Gilgamesh Pharmaceutical is working to create new molecules and psychedelic-like drugs based on the properties of psychedelics but with greater control over dose, experience, time, etc.
  • If successful, Gilgamesh’s approach could open the door to increased access to psychedelic-like therapies without the need for clinical supervision
  • Machine learning may provide an avenue to match patients with the correct drug


Dr. Jonathan Sporn (@spornj) is a Board Certified Psychiatrist and Assistant Professor at Columbia University. He has extensive clinical and research experience with NIH, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer. He is now CEO of Gilgamesh Pharmaceutical, a company developing novel psychedelic-related or inspired medicines to treat mental illness.

Christian Soschner and Jonathan Sporn discuss the unmet medical need in mental health and the promising novel psychedelic drug development sector.

Host: Christian Soschner (@Sochner)

Mental Health Today

  • The world today has significant mental health challenges – there have been drastic increases in anxiety, depression, suicide, and most other mental health problems
  • Gun violence: in the U.S. there’s a mixture of mental health problems and easily accessible dangerous weapons which have reached a critical level
  • The pandemic brought to the surface loneliness, grief, and a loss of connectivity to others and the social fabric
  • We don’t really know why people experience cyclic mood disorders where people fluctuate from states of mania to depression

Time For Change In Mental Health Treatment

  • When mental health was first treated, the drugs were lethal in high doses so it was tough to dial in properly – too little and the patient did not improve, too much and the patient could overdose
  • The creation of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) in the 1980s changed psychiatry and allowed for the treatment of a broad population of patients with mental health disorders
  • Psychiatry is ripe for disruption: there has been little to move the needle in mental health since the invention of SSRIs
  • The multitude of side effects (e.g., reduced libido, impaired appetite, etc.) and blunting of ability to express emotion is a significant downside to SSRIs (though there is a strong benefit for many)
  • Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS): exploring therapeutic uses of MDMA; current studies are yielding remarkable improvements in PTSD treatment in conjunction with behavioral therapy
  • Possible mechanism: psychedelics and drugs like MDMA enhance the capacity for neuroplasticity and allow full expression and access to emotions
  • It’s suspected that psychedelic drugs affect glutamatergic balance
  • We need to be realistic about psychedelics – there’s a lot of hype but there’s also a long way to go and not everyone will respond equally

Limitations Of NIH Research

  • Slow pace of clinical research – difficult to recruit study participants, manage government bureaucracy
  • NIH also doesn’t create drugs so you’re dependent on pharmaceutical companies to partner
  • A positive: the environment is very resource-rich
  • Note: pharmaceuticals like Pfizer also have tons of bureaucracy and related delays to navigate
  • Most biotech companies will ultimately fail but they do have faster decision-making and a rapid pace of early-stage drug creation and research

Founding Of Perception Neuroscience

  • After leaving Johnson & Johnson, Sporn created Perception Neuroscience – a biotech company
  • Notable investor: Christian Angermeyer
  • Original research interest: R-ketamine has weaker binding to NMDA receptor so tried another isomer (S-ketamine) which worked better
  • S-ketamine is now in phase II clinical research with use for treatment-resistant depression

Gilgamesh Pharmaceutical

  • Historically, psychedelic companies are not built around innovation or the ability to do complex science but rather focus on pushing legislation and studying naturally existing psychedelics
  • Sporn is CEO of Gilgamesh Pharmaceutical in New York City, a company developing novel psychedelic-related or inspired medicines to treat mental illness
  • Focus on drug development & creating new molecules: Gilgamesh develops novel drugs with IP on the chemical matter of psychedelics
  • Big pharma is not necessarily interested in MDMA, psilocybin, or other psychedelics because they can’t make money as is since there’s not inherently innovation or IP
  • The goal is to create molecules with psychedelic properties but more controlled in the length of experience, therapeutic characteristics, etc.
  • Lab-created molecules might open the door to allow patients to take home these more controlled psychedelic-like medications without clinical supervision
  • It would still be ideal to combine these drugs with psychotherapy
  • Creation of ibogaine-like molecule: ibogaine in its natural state can cause cardiac arrhythmia but has properties that have been observed to stop heroin craving – very worthwhile
  • Gilgamesh is also working to create a better scientific process for creating and testing new drugs with machine learning instead of just observing rodent behaviors
    • If successful, there will be a greater ability to identify which drugs a person should be on

Patents, Investments, Funding & VCs

  • A strength of Gilgamesh is navigating IP
  • Gilgamesh secured $34 million in Series A funding in 2021 and additional undisclosed capital in 2022, ensuring that it is currently well-funded enough to run lead programs in clinical trials and weather the storm
  • Biotech funding has dried up to a large degree, gone are the days of throwing money at company with a good sounding idea
  • Market predictions: likely entering a period of more fear and discounts in the next 1-2 years (but biotech was in correction earlier than the rest of the market)
  • Gilgamesh is currently open for investment – email [email protected]
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