Psilocybin, a key ingredient in hallucinogenic magic mushrooms, is time consuming and expensive to make. That could be a problem when producing it as a drug to treat depression and addiction. Miami University researchers have apparently figured out a way to make psychedelic drugs faster and cheaper.
Their research began two years ago and is timely, given the success of psilocybin in controlled studies. The drug is the subject of countless reports, most recently on 60 Minutes and the Today show, where patients praise it as a viable alternative to mind-numbing standard medication.
How Researchers Make It
It's complicated, but the Miami researchers use a mix of biology and chemistry to produce the drug. They take the DNA from the mushroom and trick the bacteria E. coli into turning it into proteins and enzymes. After a series of steps, E. coli produces psilocybin and then decides it has no use for it and excretes it.
"What's exciting is the speed at which we were able to achieve our high production," says Andrew Jones, assistant professor in Miami's department of chemical, paper and biomedical engineering. "Over the course of this study we improved production from only a few milligrams per liter to over a gram per liter, a near 500-fold increase."
Their findings are published in the journal Metabolic Engineering.
Junior Lexie Adams is the lead author. She's a Lakota East graduate who, even in high school, was trying to find a cure for HIV/AIDS.
Adams said she began the psilocybin research her freshman year. "I really had this interest in using better methods to produce up-and-coming medicines and I thought this sounded so cool."
Fellow student Nicholas Kaplan likes using biology to produce chemicals. "What really excited me about it was the cutting edge of it and the potential for it to potentially change the way we produce chemicals in the future."
For Miami researchers Alexis Enacopol and Phil O'Dell, it was equally cool. The challenge now is to make it more stable. The concern is the bacteria may not be able to keep the genetic information to use on a large scale.
"Once you go from that scale, publishing a paper to thinking about a tank that's 10,000 liters and the size of a room, there's a lot of details that are involved in that scale-up," says Professor Jones.
Miami is now in talks to commercialize the process.