The high-stakes race to develop new psychedelic drugs

“It’s my life,” says Wallach. “There is nothing else I would rather do. If I got a billion dollars today, the first thing I would do is build a Superlab.” When Compass called, he finally got a golden opportunity to make that dream a reality. Maybe not a full-blown billionaire Superlab. But a private laboratory.

in pop culture, Psychedelia is a day-glo tapestry of mandalas, blacklight inks, tie-dye and fat pants embossed with lime green alien heads. In their various stages of synthesis and manufacture, psychoactive drugs are decidedly unkaleidoscopic: brownish, yellowish, and vaguely disgusting, like plaque scraped from nicotine-stained teeth. The labs where these drugs are synthesized smell like someone is burning a Rotten Eggs Yankee Candle.

Last fall I visited Wallach in his lab where he was making N,N-dipropyltryptamine – a legal and extremely potent hallucinogen. Clad in a faded maroon polo shirt, khakis, and chunky desert boots, Wallach sets up a reaction in a round-bottomed flask and explains that scientists were studying DPT for use in psychotherapy in the 1970s. He zips around the lab, blowing moisture out of jars, capping tubes with argon gas, dissolving reagents in methanol, and advising me to keep my distance while handling substances he warns are “quite toxic.” It’s like watching a chef at a teppanyaki restaurant slice and dice out of sheer reflex.

The fall semester is in session and Wallach has returned to face-to-face classes following the pandemic hiatus. His lab – and his work for Compass – continues. Wallach and his crew of mostly 20-somethings shuttle back and forth between a few different offices, testing compounds for purity, sketching molecules in grid-lined notebooks, and preparing potentially mind-altering substances in discreetly labeled mailers to be sent to a partner lab for mouse-twitch testing of UC San Diego.

The task is to develop drugs that tickle the 5-HT2A receptor, a cellular protein involved in a range of functions – appetite, imagination, fear, sexual arousal. The receptor has proven crucial in understanding the neuropharmacology of the psychedelic experience induced by classical hallucinogens. LSD, mescaline, psilocybin – they all interact with 5-HT2A. (In certain circles, the phrase “5-HT2A agonist” has supplanted “psychedelic,” which still carries a slight tinge of hippie-era hedonism.) “If you’re designing a new version of a classic hallucinogen,” says Wallach, “The first thing you do is look at the interaction with this receptor.”

One of Wallach’s goals is to find out how long the effects of a psychedelic last. Full-dose psilocybin trips typically last longer than six hours. Traditional hippie wisdom dictates three full days for a proper LSD experience: one to prepare, one to trip, and one to readjust to the world of waking, unwavering consciousness. From a clinical perspective, such epic sessions are expensive and may not be necessary. Meanwhile, drugs like DMT are acute and intense, with effects that last only a few minutes (sometimes called a “business trip” because it can be enjoyed within a typical lunch break). Finding what Lars Wilde, Compass co-founder, calls “the sweet spot” between length of a journey and clinical efficacy is just one of Wallach’s many challenges. If he and his research team come across a blend that’s particularly potent or experientially unique – “cool” is a word that gets thrown around a lot – well, so much the better.

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