The author and podcast host Tim Ferriss has done his share of heavy lifting when it comes to supporting and promoting research on psychedelic drugs. He’s invested millions of his own, and also organized half the $17 million in commitments it took to start up the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research.
While his efforts highlight the reality that psychedelic therapy, like any other medical treatment, requires significant amounts of money for research, Ferriss recently tweeted his apprehension about a side effect of the growing money-generating psychedelic market.
"I am very concerned by the patent land grab warming up in the for-profit psychedelic world,” he wrote, asking publicly if there was any coalition of pro-bono lawyers who could intervene “when companies attempt to secure broad patents that could hinder scientific research, reasonable competition…and so on?”
Patent announcements are hard to miss in the psychedelic field these days. Most recently, as Troy Farah wrote in Future Human, the biotech startup CaaMTech was granted a patent for the combination of cannabis and psilocybin. A patent application from mental health company Compass Pathways garnered attention for including claims on very basic elements of psychedelic psychotherapy—from holding hands to using soft furniture.
A patent gives an individual or company ownership over an invention, and then prevents others from using their invention without licensing it. The patent office looks at scientific literature and prior patents to determine if an invention should be granted a patent, but the amount of psychedelic knowledge might not be reflected in these resources since psychedelics have been illegal and operating underground.
In many respects, the for-profit psychedelic field is behaving the same as other biotech companies have before—they’re taking notice of potentially beneficial compounds and research, and trying to patent “novel” uses to build profitable patent libraries. The issue that's arising is partly a philosophical one: The experiences that many people have taking psychedelics directly contradict this shift towards ownership, profit, and exclusion. More practically, as researchers continue to show promising results from academic trials on a myriad of mental health disorders, there’s valid concern about psychedelics becoming price gouged or monopolized through intellectual property (IP).
There's notable disagreement about how to move forward from the field's major players. Rick Doblin, the founder and executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), responded to Ferriss' tweet to say that MAPS “has recently engaged patent attorneys to assist in strengthening our anti-patent strategy for uses of MDMA, and to prepare easily accessible information for patent examiners so patents will not be issued in the first place.”
Doblin also wrote that MAPS will not seek to patent any uses of MDMA for clinical use, “and will actively challenge patents on MDMA-assisted therapy that seek to privatize information already in the public domain that don’t represent actual innovations.” Similarly, the non-profit Usona Institute has taken an "open science" approach by not filing for patents.
Christian Angermayer, the psychedelic investor who helped fund Compass Pathways and co-founded the company ATAI Life Sciences, took another view, responding to Ferriss: “Tim I am [a] HUGE fan of your work, but on this topic you are incredibly misguided.” He went on to say that while Ferriss has donated a “few million” dollars to the psychedelic research space, “It’s a drop in the ocean relative to what’s needed.”
Angermayer also recently said in an interview that he believes that biotech will be one of the best performing asset classes of the next 20 years. “What tech was the last two decades, the next two decades will be biotech," he said. "50% of my entire portfolio is in biotech.”
Patent applications are secret for 18 months, and what we've seen is likely only the tip of the psychedelic patent iceberg. Psilocybin Alpha, a publication geared towards investors in psychedelic medicine, has a Psilocybin Patent Tracker, an MDMA Patent Tracker, and a DMT Patent Tracker, so that anyone can keep as up to date as possible on what’s being filed.
To get a sense of what's out there right now, Motherboard took a look at several pending and granted patents that include psychedelics, to show how diverse these applications can be. Psychedelic compounds appear in patent applications for Philip Morris e-cigarettes, periodontal disease, hair loss, weight loss, and the treatment of food allergies.
What’s crucial to understanding some of these applications is that they are not all primarily psychedelic patent applications; they’re patent applications for other inventions that happen to include different psychedelics as an optional or potential part of that invention. Remember: With patent applications, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be granted, and if they are, they could be heavily amended beforehand. Still, what we can see from the wide scope of these applications is that psychedelics are increasingly popping up, and that the "patent land grab" is reaching much farther than just mental health.
Philip Morris and “DMT vape pens”
After Graham Pechenik, a patent and IP lawyer, tweeted that cigarette and tobacco company Philip Morris' patent grants and applications have the largest number of disclosing uses for N,N-DMT & 5-MeO-DMT (different formulations of DMT), he said it caused quite a buzz.
But there’s some nuance here to unpack: The Philip Morris patents aren’t really patents for “DMT vape pens.” They are patents or applications on various types of e-cigarettes and mechanisms within the e-cigarettes. DMT and 5-MeO-DMT are included in a list of "medicaments" that could be used in those e-cigarettes.
That said, if DMT were legalized, Philip Morris could have grounds to prevent anyone else from putting DMT in Philip Morris devices specifically. “Philip Morris is definitely not patenting a DMT vape pen, specifically,” Pechenik said. “But, it at least shows that they're aware that this is a compound that could be used.”
DMT vape pens don’t currently have any research behind them: It's unknown whether they are safe, for one, or if they have any other benefits or uses.
“In essence, I think they’re looking ahead, and want to make sure nobody would be able to say that they’re not infringing because DMT wasn’t in Philip Morris’ patents," Pechenik said. "And [they] want to stake out the space so that others don’t file their own patents specific to DMT vapes."
Psychedelics for food allergies
In 2018, alternative medicine proponent and doctor Andrew Weil told Joe Rogan that his cat allergy disappeared after he took LSD. He told CBS journalist Ed Bradley the same anecdote in 2001: “I took LSD. I was in a wonderful outdoor setting. I felt terrific and, in the midst of this, a cat came up to me and crawled into my lap. I did not have an allergic reaction to it and I never did since.”
He continued to tell Bradley that he thought food allergies were “learned.” ”That gave me the idea that [taking LSD] would be a great way to teach people to unlearn allergies," he said. (In the same interview he said he wasn’t comfortable being called a shaman or a medical holy man, but that “wizard” was OK.)
Food allergies are incredibly complex. There’s no current research on psychedelics for food allergies; the most promising food allergy treatment is oral immunotherapy, which exposes you to tiny amounts of the food you’re allergic to in order to become desensitized to it. Another innovative approach still being researched attempts to utilize compounds made by gut bacteria.
But there is one public patent application making claims on psychedelics' ability to treat food allergies. The patent application even makes claims around severe allergic reactions: “Food allergy conditions may, after exposure to an allergen, cause an anaphylactic condition in a subject. Accordingly, the methods of the present disclosure may, in some instances, treat, including prevent or lessen the severity of, anaphylaxis in a subject following exposure to an antigen.”
The food allergy application was filed by the investment firm Palo Alto Investors. Joon Yun, the president and managing partner, described the group on his website as a “team of practicing physicians run one of the biggest healthcare investment shops in the country. We make long-term investments for high-net-worth and institutional investors based on original, deep, fundamental research. We don’t rent stocks. We own them.”
How can a patent application be filed for something that has yet to be proven? Pechenik said that the U.S. has pretty liberal laws around providing evidence for your patent claims. All that is required in an application is a description of your invention so that someone could make and use it. Then, a patent application can include something called a “prophetic example,” which can be found in this food allergy application. Their “example,” shown below, is not actually an experiment that took place.
“Basically it’s a prophecy, quite literally, where you just lay out what a research program may look like, and then just prophesize what the results you hope to achieve are,” Pechenik said. He's worked on cases where a prophetic example was enough to get a patent granted.
When writing prophetic claims, applicants have to avoid using the past tense. “Doing so, and making people think it’s been done, can actually be inequitable conduct that can render a patent unenforceable,” Pechenik said.
Patent examiners can push back, and try to limit patent claims to be more specific, or gather more evidence. In the most recent back and forth on this patent application, the examiners wrote that the application claims could only include claims on "treating food allergy by LSD,” whereas the original filed application claims included all psychedelics.
The application’s amended claims, filed on February 16, 2021, now only include LSD. “This helps the examiner save time, and forces an applicant to pay multiple fees where there’s more than ‘a single invention’ in an application,” Pechenik said. “What will happen now, most likely, is the applicant will file one or more continuation applications to next ask for claims to psilocin or other agents.”
David Casimir, a lawyer specializing in intellectual property who has a Ph.D. in biochemistry, thinks that this patent won't be issued if it’s examined thoroughly—but he can’t say for certain. “Maybe it would,” he said. “But then what that would be is essentially a very challengeable patent if it is issued as broadly as it's written right now.”
There could be another barrier to this patent application called “anticipation by inherency.” This means that even if you discover something “new,” if it’s been happening "inherently" in the past, you can’t get a patent on it. That means if LSD really does treat food allergies (again—there’s no evidence yet that it does) thousands or more people would have already received this benefit.
“This would have happened in the past, even if it’s not in the public literature,” Casimir said. “If the patent office can find evidence to see that someone in the past took a psychedelic drug and had a food allergy, then they should be unpatentable unless they can prove that there's a specific mechanism that's being treated here.”
Psychedelics for weight loss
On March 2, NeonMind Biosciences announced in a press release that it filed four provisional patent applications involving the potential use of psilocybin as a treatment for weight loss. “NeonMind’s proprietary preclinical data shows promise that both low and high dose psilocybin may reduce weight gain and that the reduction in weight gain can occur in a short period of time,” the release said.
NeonMind’s pending patent applications include a wide variety of psychedelic compounds, including psilocybin, DMT, and LSD, for treatments including weight loss, obesity, reduction of food cravings, and decreasing food intake.
This isn’t the first psychedelic patent application we’ve seen for weight loss. In 2019, NeonMind, previously named Flourish Mushroom Labs, filed another provisional patent application for the use of psychedelic mushroom compounds for weight loss. Its new applications bring it to a total of 10 provisional patents in the U.S. covering the treatment of obesity with psychedelics, of which two have been converted to patent applications.
An LSD disrupter
Usually, when a person takes LSD, they commit to an experience of at least six to 12 hours. What if you could stop it early? That’s what the psychedelic company MindMed is trying to patent with its application for an “LSD neutralizer,” a compound called ketanserin.
LSD is serotonergic, meaning that it binds to serotonin receptors—specifically, one called the 5-HT2A receptor. Ketanserin has the opposite effect on the receptor. One study has previously found that if people took ketanserin before taking LSD, it prevented the most intense effects of the psychedelic. MindMed is investigating whether or not ketanserin could be used after a person has already taken LSD in order to shorten or end the trip.
In February, MindMed announced that it was beginning a double-blind, placebo-controlled study, in collaboration with the University Hospital Basel, on ketanserin. “This study will support the patent application that was filed last year (preserving all worldwide rights) for a neutralizer technology intended to shorten and stop the effects of an LSD trip during a therapy session,” according to their press release.
As Psilocybin Alpha noted, ketanserin was discovered by Janssen Pharmaceuticals, which was owned by J&J, in 1980. “Whether this application of ketanserin will be effective, patentable, and profitable is yet to be seen,” Psilocybin Alpha wrote.
A personalized psychedelics scent bubble
This ethereal patent application is for a device that creates and maintains a “personalized bubble of scent" around a person. While the scent bubble could be used for perfume, the application writes that other liquids could also be dispensed, including psychedelic medicines like LSD and psilocybin. Also on the list of potential ingredients for a personal bubble: human pheromones, insect repellant, anti-cellulite liquid, and vitamin-enhanced liquid.
Psychedelics for hair loss and periodontal disease
Like the Philip Morris patents, these applications are not directly for the treatment of hair or tooth loss with psychedelics, but include psychedelics within the language of the patent application.
The periodontal application is primarily for a way to categorize patients with periodontal disease, and how to treat each patient accordingly. The hair loss patent application is about treating traction alopecia with compounds that have a specific kind of biological interaction with the scalp—and it includes DMT as one potential compound.
This is something that we'll start to see more and more of, according to Casimir—psychedelics being folded into applications. “You tend to see this anytime someone has a successful product with something in the nutraceutical space,” he said. “You see a pile-on effect shortly thereafter—where everyone either speculates wildly and files patents on it, or collects some data to demonstrate it. I would expect as this topic gets more and more popular, which is not taking very long to happen, just about anything you could ever think of will be tried. And if it works, it'll be in the patent application. And sometimes even if it doesn't, it'll be in a patent application.”
Outside of concerns about cost, access, and monopoly, some feel that some of the latest patent applications contradict the focuses of academic psychedelic research. As Psymposia senior writer Russell Hausfeld tweeted, “Funny. One of the biggest issues people are hoping psychedelics will help with is addiction. Meanwhile, Philip Morris is patenting DMT pens.” The multiple pending patent applications for weight loss are filed at the same time that Johns Hopkins is conducting research on the use of psychedelics for anorexia nervosa.
In a recent article in Double Blind, lawyer Nicole Howell, who litigates in the cannabis market, argued that there are important lessons psychedelics can learn from marijunana. “In cannabis, we’ve seen an unhealthy relationship with profit and investment that has created consolidation of the market, perverse incentives, and is slowly driving the lovers and believers out of the game only to be replaced by traditional business fundamentals of 'scale'” 'ROI' and ‘exit strategies,’” she wrote.
Psychedelic researcher Matt Baggott suggested one intriguing path forward: “We should also create the equivalent of creative commons psychedelic pharmacotherapy licenses. This would give rise to a coalition of organizations sharing IP that could outcompete the monopolists.”
These patent growing pains will only increase in the coming years. And the culture around psychedelics particularly sets the field up for an ethical clash with how businesses normally go about profiting and making money from compounds. Howell wrote that “with psychedelics as our guide and teacher, we can and must challenge the false idol of cash as the prize and replace it with the notion that capital is the servant, catalyst, and partner to the ultimate reality that psychedelics reveal: We are one. This is the veil that is lifted when we tune in. This is the Great Perspective Shift psychedelics can offer.”
We've rarely seen this kind of language deployed when discussing pharmaceutical IP. Clearly psychedelics and patent law represent a confrontation of differing values that may take awhile to figure out how to co-exist.
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This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Flourish Mushroom Labs is now called NeonMind Biosciences Inc.