Lori Tipton's life was a cascade of trauma that even a soap opera would not dare inflict upon a character: a mentally unstable family; a brother who died of a drug overdose; the shocking discovery of the bodies of two persons her mother had killed before turning the gun on herself; the devastation of Hurricane Katrina that savaged her hometown of New Orleans; being raped by someone she trusted; and having an abortion. She suffered from severe PTSD.
“My life was filled with anxiety and hypervigilance,” she says. “I was constantly afraid and had mood swings, panic attacks, insomnia, intrusive thoughts and suicidal ideation. I tried to take my life more than once.” She was fortunate to be able to access multiple mental health services, “And while at times some of these modalities would relieve the symptoms, nothing really lasted and nothing really address the core trauma.”
Then in 2018 Tipton enrolled in a clinical trial that combined intense sessions of psychotherapy with limited use of Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, a drug classified as a psychedelic and commonly known as ecstasy or Molly. The regimen was arduous; 1-2 hour preparation sessions, three sessions where MDMA was used, which lasted 6-8 hours, and lengthy sessions afterward to process and integrate the experiences. Two therapists were with her every moment of the three-month program that totaled more than 40 hours.
“It was clear to me that [the therapists] weren't going to heal me, that I was going to have to do the work for myself, but that they were there to completely support my process,” she says. “But the effects of MDMA were really undeniable for me. I felt embodied in a way that I hadn't in years. PTSD had robbed me of the ability to feel safe in my own body.”
Tipton doesn’t think the therapy completely cured her PTSD. “But when I completed the trial in 2018, I no longer qualified for the diagnosis, and I still don't qualify for the diagnosis today,” she told an April workshop on psychedelics as mental health treatment by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, or NASEM.
Rick Doblin has been a catalyst behind much of the contemporary research into psychedelics. Prior to the DEA clamp down, the Boston psychotherapist had seen that MDMA and other psychedelics could benefit some of his patients where other measures had failed. He immediately organized efforts to question the drug rescheduling but to little avail. In 1986, he created the nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which slowly laid the scientific foundation for clinical trials, including the one that Tipton joined, using psychedelics to treat mental health conditions.
Now, only slowly, have researchers been able to explore the power of these drugs to treat a broad spectrum of severely debilitating mental health conditions, including trauma, depression, and PTSD, where other available treatments proved inadequate.
“Psychedelic psychotherapy is an attempt to go after the root causes of the problems with just a relatively few administrations, as contrasted to most of the psychiatric drugs used today that are mostly just reducing symptoms and are meant to be taken on a daily basis,” Doblin said in a 2019 TED Talk. Most of these drugs can have broad effect but “some are probably more effective than others for certain conditions,” he added in a recent interview with Leaps.org. Comparative head-to-head studies of psychedelic therapies simply have not been conducted.
Their mechanisms of action are poorly understood and can vary between drugs, but it is generally believed that psychedelics change the activity of neurons so that the brain processes information differently, says Katrin Preller, a neuropsychologist at the University of Zurich. A recent important study in Nature Medicine by Richard Daws and colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain and found that “functional networks became more functionally interconnected and flexible after psilocybin treatment…implying that psilocybin's antidepressant action may depend on a global increase in brain network integration.”
Rosalind Watts, a clinical investigator at the Imperial College in London, believes there is “an overestimation of the importance of the drug and an underestimation of the importance of the [therapeutic] context” in psychedelic research. “It is unethical to provide the drug without the other,” she says. Doblin notes that “psychotherapy outcomes research demonstrates that the therapeutic alliance between the therapist and the patients is the single most predictive factor of outcomes. [It is] trust and the sense of safety, the willingness to go into difficult spaces” that makes clinical breakthroughs possible with the drug.
Excitement and Challenges
Recurrent themes expressed at the NASEM workshop were exciting glimpses of the potential for psychedelics to treat mental health conditions combined with the challenges of realizing those potentials. A recent review paper found evidence that using psychedelics can help with treating a variety of common mental illnesses, but the paper could identify only 14 clinical trials of classic psychedelics published since 1991. Much of the reason is that the drugs are not patentable and so the pharmaceutical industry has no interest in investing in expensive clinical trials to bring them to market. MAPS has raised about $135 million over its 36-year history to conduct such research, says Doblin, the vast majority of it from individual donors and none from foundations.
The workshop participants’ views also were colored by the history of drug crackdowns and a fear that research might easily be shut down in the future. There was great concern that use of psychedelics should be confined to clinical trials with high safety and ethical standards, instead of doctors and patients experimenting on their own. “We need to get it right this time,” says Charles Grob, a psychiatrist at the UCLA School of Medicine. But restricting access to psychedelics will become even more difficult now that Oregon and several cities have acted to decriminalize possession and use of many of these drugs.
The experience with ketamine also troubled Grob. He is hoping to “mitigate the rush of rapid commercialization” that occurred with that drug. Ketamine technically is not a psychedelic though it does share some of their potentially euphoric properties. In 2019, soon after the FDA approved a form of ketamine with a limited label indication to treat depression, for profit clinics sprang up promoting off label use of the drug for psychiatric conditions where there was little clinical evidence of efficacy. He fears the same thing will happen when true psychedelics are made available.
If these therapies are approved, access to them is likely to be a problem. The drugs themselves are cheap but the accompanying therapy is not, and there is a shortage of trained psychotherapists. Mental health services often are not adequately covered by health insurance, while the poor and people of color suffer additional burdens of inadequate access. Doblin is committed to health care equity by training additional providers and by investigating whether some of the preparatory and integration sessions might be handled in a group setting. He says it is important that the legal aspects of psychedelics also be addressed so that patients “don't have to go underground” in order to receive this care.
The quest for an elixir to restore youthful health and vigor is common to most cultures and has prompted much scientific research. About a decade ago, Stanford scientists stitched together the blood circulatory systems of old and young mice in a practice called parabiosis. It seemed to rejuvenate the aged animals and spawned vampirish urban legends of Hollywood luminaries and tech billionaires paying big bucks for healthy young blood to put into their own aging arteries in the hope of reversing or at least forestalling the aging process.
It was “kind of creepy” and also inspiring to Fabrisia Ambrosio, then thousands of miles away and near the start of her own research career into the processes of aging. Her lab is at the University of Pittsburgh but on this cold January morning I am speaking with her via Zoom as she visits with family near her native Sao Paulo, Brazil. A gleaming white high rise condo and a lush tropical jungle split the view behind her, and the summer beach is just a few blocks away.
Ambrosio possesses the joy of a kid on Christmas morning who can't wait to see what’s inside the wrapping. “I’ve always had a love for research, my father was a physicist," she says, but interest in the human body pulled her toward biology as her education progressed in the U.S. and Canada.
Back in Pittsburgh, her lab first extended the work of others in aging by using the simpler process of injecting young blood into the tail vein of old mice and found that the skeletal muscles of the animals “displayed an enhanced capacity to regenerate.” But what was causing this improvement?
When Ambrosio injected old mice with young blood depleted of EVs, the regenerative effect practically disappeared.
The next step was to remove the extracellular vesicles (EVs) from blood. EVs are small particles of cells composed of a membrane and often a cargo inside that lipid envelope. Initially many scientists thought that EVs were simply taking out the garbage that cells no longer needed, but they would learn that one cell's trash could be another cell's treasure.
Metabolites, mRNA, and myriad other signaling molecules inside the EV can function as a complex network by which cells communicate with others both near and far. These cargoes can up and down-regulate gene expression, affecting cell activity and potentially the entire body. EVs are present in humans, the bacteria that live in and on us, even in plants; they likely communicate across all forms of life.
Being inside the EV membrane protects cargo from enzymes and other factors in the blood that can degrade it, says Kenneth Witwer, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University and program chair of the International Society for Extracellular Vesicles. The receptors on the surface of the EV provide clues to the type of cell from which it originated and the cell receptors to which it might later bind and affect.
When Ambrosio injected old mice with young blood depleted of EVs, the regenerative effect practically disappeared; purified EVs alone were enough to do the job. The team also looked at muscle cell gene expression after injections of saline, young blood, and EV-depleted young blood and found significant differences. She believes this means that the major effect of enhanced regenerative capacity was coming from the EVs, though free floating proteins within the blood may also contribute something to the effect.
One such protein, called klotho, is of great interest to researchers studying aging. The name was borrowed from the Fates of Greek mythology, which consists of three sisters; Klotho spins the thread of life that her sisters measure and cut. Ambrosio had earlier shown that supplementing klotho could enhance regenerative capacity in old animals. But as with most proteins, klotho is fragile, rapidly degrading in body fluids, or when frozen and thawed. She suspected that klotho could survive better as cargo enclosed within the membrane of an EV and shielded from degradation.
So she went looking for klotho inside the EVs they had isolated. Advanced imaging technology revealed that young EVs contained abundant levels of klotho mRNAs, but the number of those proteins was much lower in EVs from old mice. Ambrosio wrote in her most recent paper, published in December in Nature Aging. She also found that the stressors associated with aging reduced the communications capacity of EVs in muscle tissue and that could be only partially restored with young blood.
Researchers still don't understand how klotho functions at the cellular level, but they may not need to know that. Perhaps learning how to increase its production, or using synthetic biology to generate more copies of klotho mRNA, or adding cell receptors to better direct EVs to specific aging tissue will be sufficient to reap the anti-aging benefits.
“Very, very preliminary data from our lab has demonstrated that exercise may be altering klotho transcripts within aged extracellular vesicles" for the better Ambrosio teases. But we already know that exercise is good for us; understanding the cellular mechanism behind that isn't likely to provide additional motivation to get up off the couch. Many of us want a prescription, a pill that is easy to take, to slow our aging.
Ambrosio hopes that others will build upon the basic research from her lab, and that pharmaceutical companies will be able to translate and develop it into products that can pass through FDA review and help ameliorate the diseases of aging.
Imagine that the protein in bread, eggs, steak, even beans is not the foundation for a healthy diet, but a poison to your brain. That is the reality for people living with Phenylketonuria, or PKU. This cluster of rare genetic variations affects the ability to digest phenylalanine (Phe), one of the chemical building blocks of protein. The toxins can build up in the brain causing severe mental retardation.
Can a probiotic help digest the troublesome proteins before they can enter the bloodstream and travel to the brain? A Boston area biotech start up, Synlogic, believes it can. Their starting point is an E. coli bacterium that has been used as a probiotic for more than a century. The company then screened thousands of gene variants to identify ones that produced enzymes most efficient at slicing and dicing the target proteins and optimized them further through directed evolution. The results have been encouraging.
But Christine Brown knew none of this when the hospital called saying that standard newborn screening of her son Connor had come back positive for PKU. It was urgent that they visit a special metabolic clinic the next day, which was about a three-hour drive away.
“I was told not to go on the Internet,” Christine recalls, “So when somebody tells you not to go on the Internet, what do you do? Even back in 2005, right.” What she saw were the worst examples of retardation, which was a common outcome from PKU before newborn screening became routine. “We were just in complete shell shock, our whole world just kind of shattered and went into a tail spin.”
“I remember feeding him the night before our clinic visit and almost feeling like I was feeding him poison because I knew that breast milk must have protein in it,” she says.
“Some of my first memories are of asking, ‘Mommy, can I eat this? There were yes foods and no foods.'"
Over the next few days the dedicated staff of the metabolic clinic at the Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin Madison began to walk she and husband Kevin back from that nightmare. They learned that a simple blood test to screen newborns had been developed in the early 1960s to detect PKU and that the condition could be managed with stringent food restrictions and vigilant monitoring of Phe levels.
Everything in Your Mouth Counts
PKU can be successfully managed with a severely restricted diet. That simple statement is factually true, but practically impossible to follow, as it requires slashing protein consumption by about 90 percent. To compensate for the missing protein, several times a day PKU patients take a medical formula – commonly referred to simply as formula – containing forms of proteins that are digestible to their bodies. Several manufacturers now add vitamins and minerals and offer a variety of formats and tastes to make it more consumer friendly, but that wasn't always the case.
“When I was a kid, it tasted horrible, was the consistency of house paint. I didn't think about it, I just drank it. I didn't like it but you get used to it after a while,” recalls Jeff Wolf, the twang of Appalachia still strong in his voice. Now age 50, he grew up in Ashland, Kentucky and was part of the first wave of persons with PKU who were identified at birth as newborn screening was rolled out across the US. He says the options of taste and consistency have improved tremendously over the years.
Some people with PKU are restricted to as little as 8 grams of protein a day from food. That's a handful of almonds or a single hard-boiled egg; a skimpy 4-ounce hamburger and slice of cheese adds up to half of their weekly protein ration. Anything above that daily allowance is more than the body can handle and toxic levels of Phe begin to accumulate in the brain.
“Some of my first memories are of asking, ‘Mommy, can I eat this? There were yes foods and no foods,’” recalls Les Clark. He has never eaten a hamburger, steak, or ribs, practically a sacrilege for someone raised in Stanton, a small town in northeastern Nebraska, a state where the number of cattle and hogs are several-fold those of people.
His grandmother learned how to make low protein bread, but it looked and tasted different. His mom struggled making birthday cakes. “I learned some bad words at a very young age” as mom struggled applying icing that would pull the cake apart or a slice would collapse into a heap of crumbs, Les recalls.
Les Clark with a birthday cake.
Controlling the diet “is not so bad when you are a baby” because that's all you know, says Jerry Vockley, Director of the Center for Rare Disease Therapy at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. “But after a while, as you get older and you start tasting other things and you say, Well, gee, this stuff tastes way better than what you're giving me. What's the deal? It becomes harder to maintain the diet.”
First is the lure of forbidden foods as children venture into the community away from the watchful eyes of parents. The support system weakens further when they leave home for college or work. “Pizza was mighty tasty,” Wolf' says of his first slice.
Vockley estimates that about 90 percent of adults with PKU are off of treatment. Moving might mean finding a new metabolic clinic that treats PKU. A lapse in insurance coverage can be a factor. Finally there is plain fatigue from multiple daily dosing of barely tolerable formula, monitoring protein intake, and simply being different in terms of food restrictions. Most people want to fit in and not be defined by their medical condition.
Jeff Wolf was one of those who dropped out in his twenties and thirties. He stopped going to clinic, monitoring his Phe levels, and counting protein. But the earlier experience of living with PKU never completely left the back of his mind; he listened to his body whenever eating too much protein left him with the “fuzzy brain" of a protein hangover. About a decade ago he reconnected with a metabolic clinic, began taking formula and watching his protein intake. He still may go over his allotment for a single day but he tries to compensate on subsequent days so that his Phe levels come back into balance.
Jeff Wolf on a boat.
One of the trickiest parts of trying to manage phenylalanine intake is the artificial sweetener aspartame. The chemical is ubiquitous in diet and lite foods and drinks. Gum too, you don't even have to swallow to receive a toxic dose of Phe. Most PKUers say it is easier to simply avoid these products entirely rather than try to count their Phe content.
Most rare diseases have no treatment. There are two drugs for PKU that provide some benefit to some portion of patients but those drugs often have their own burdens.
KUVAN® (sapropterin dihydrochloride) is a pill or powder that helps correct a protein folding error so that food proteins can be digested. It is approved for most types of PKU in adults and children one month and older, and often is used along with a protein-restricted diet.
“The problem is that it doesn't work for every [patient's genetic] mutation, and there are hundreds of mutations that have been identified with PKU. Two to three percent of patients will have a very dramatic response and if you're one of those small number of patients, it's great,” says Vockley. “If you have one of the other mutation, chances are pretty good you still are going to end up on a restricted diet.”
PALYNZIQ® (pegvaliase-pqpz) “has the potential to lower the Phe to normal levels, it's a real breakthrough in the field,” says Vockley. “But is a very hard drug to use. Most folks have to take either one or two 2ml injections a day of something that is basically a gel, and some individuals have to take three.”
Many PKUers have reactions at the site of the injection and some develop anaphylaxis, a severe potentially life-threatening allergic reaction that can happen within seconds and can occur at any time, even after long term use. Many patients using Palynziq carry an EpiPen, a self-injection devise containing a form of adrenaline that can reverse some of the symptoms of anaphylaxis.
Then there is the cost. With the Kuvan dosing for an adult, “you're talking between $100,000 and $200,000 a year. And Palynziq is three times that,” says Vockley. Insurance coverage through a private plan or a state program is essential. Some state programs provide generous coverage while others are skimpy. Most large insurance company plans cover the drugs, sometimes with significant copays, but companies that are self-insured are under no legal obligation to provide coverage.
Les Clark found that out the hard way when the company he worked for was sold. The new owner was self-insured and declined to continue covering his drugs. Almost immediately he was out of pocket an additional $1500 a month for formula, and that was with a substantial discount through the manufacturer's patient support program. He says, “If you don't have an insurance policy that will cover the formula, it's completely unaffordable.” He quickly began to look for a new job.
It's easy to see why PKUers are eager for advances that will make managing their condition more effect, easier, and perhaps more affordable. Synlogic's efforts have drawn their attention and raised hopes.
Just before Thanksgiving Jerry Vockley presented the latest data to a metabolism conference meeting in Australia. There were only 8 patients in this group of a phase 2 trial using the original version of the company's lead E. coli product, SYNB1618, but they were intensely studied. Each was given the probiotic and then a challenge meal. Vockley saw a 40% reduction in Phe absorption and later a 20% reduction in mean fasting Phe levels in the blood. The product was easy to use and tolerate.
The company also presented early results for SYNB1934, a follow on version that further genetically tweaked the E. coli to roughly double the capacity to chop up the target proteins. Synlogic is recruiting patients for studies to determine the best dosing, which they are planning for next year.
“It's an exciting approach,” says Lex Cowsert, Director of Research Development at the National PKU Alliance, a nonprofit that supports the patient, family, and research communities involved with PKU. “Every patient is different, every patient has a different tolerance for the type of therapy that they are willing to pursue,” and if it pans out, it will be a welcome addition, either alone or in combination with other approaches, to living with PKU.
Author's Note: Reporting this story was made possible by generous support from the National Press Foundation and the Fondation Ipsen. Thanks to the people who so generously shared their time and stories in speaking with me.