By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Psilocybin has been tested in a clinical context before, most recently by Dr. Francisco Moreno at the University of Arizona, who is studying its effects on the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and Franz X. Vollenweider, who completed a “dose-effect” study last spring, establishing the drug’s minimal risk to human health or psychological well-being. In the early 1960s, Stanislav Grof used another hallucinogen, DPT, along with LSD, to study existential anxiety in end-stage cancer patients; he found that the people he studied developed better attitudes about death, improved their relationships with family members and asked for less pain medication in the weeks and months following the experiment.
None of this figured into the Harbor-UCLA's Institutional Review Board assessment of Grob’s study, however — when it sent back the first draft of its official patient-consent form, it read, “Benefits to Patient: None.” Both Grob and Hagerty protested that there were indeed benefits, but they’re hard to measure in medical terms. They also realize that the volunteer response might be small because most people with cancer aren’t looking for a better way to die. They’re looking for hope that they’ll live.
Hagerty recalls a woman who responded shortly after she and Grob first sent out the call for recruits. “She was in her early 30s and had lung cancer. She had a little baby at home, and she was just desperate for anything that would help her live longer. She didn’t know what psilocybin was, and I explained some of it to her and sent her to the Web site [www.canceranxiety study.org] so she could read about it. Of course, I never heard back from her.”
Another man called to refer his wife, who had already been assigned to palliative care but couldn’t quite accept that she was dying. “He told us, ‘She’s not even thinking about death,’” says Hagerty. “‘She’ll admit that she’s Stage IV, but she doesn’t think she’s terminal.’ We heard that and changed the language, because how do you define ‘terminal’? It’s so variable, so negative. Medical science says to the ‘terminal’ patient, ‘Go off and take care of yourself; have a nice death.’ But a lot of people can live with Stage IV cancer for years.”
Hagerty says that there has been no shortage of interest in the study, just not necessarily from appropriate candidates. “We’re getting a lot of calls from people asking if we need any ‘normal controls.’ Meaning they’d be happy to take the psilocybin — they just don’t happen to have cancer.”
After two and a half months of putting out the call on e-mail lists and Web sites, Grob and Hagerty finally think they may have one participant: a man in New Mexico in the last stages of metastasized rectal cancer. “It’s taken forever to get his lab work,” says Grob, “because once his doctor had determined he couldn’t be cured, his insurance wouldn’t pay for new ones.” Finally, his insurance provider complied, and he’s just cleared a preliminary interview with George Greer of the Heffter Institute, the study’s primary funder. “His red-blood-cell count was right on the border,” says Grob. “But I got an okay from the people who run the research unit that it was good enough.” He’d prefer that participants don’t have to travel, “but at this point I can’t be picky. I’m too anxious to get this study up and running.”