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Tuesday 27 June 2023 10:50am

Finding a way to help terminal cancer patients struggling with depressive thoughts and emotions is the aim of a new clinical trial using MDMA-assisted psychotherapy.

The collaboration between the University of Otago, Waipapa Taumata Rau (University of Auckland), and independent provider Mana Health, is designed to assess the usefulness of psychotherapy augmented with MDMA (also known as ecstasy) in treating depression and anxiety experienced by patients with advanced-stage cancer.

Professor Paul Glue, Otago's Hazel Buckland Chair in Psychological Medicine, says psychedelic-assisted therapy has shown promise in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety in life-threatening illnesses, in US-based studies.

The researchers hope the findings will be similar for late-stage cancer patients in New Zealand.

Paul Glue 2023 image
Professor Paul Glue.

“Depression and anxiety are very common in people with advanced-stage cancer and can really impact on the quality of life they have available,” he says.

“This could be a really useful way to help people who don't have a lot of time, helping them work through difficult thoughts and emotions, including fear of death.”

MDMA works by temporarily reducing activity in the amygdala, a brain region associated with fear. This enables many to address underlying emotions linked to life regrets, unfinished business, or past traumatic experience.

Dr Lisa Reynolds, a senior lecturer in Auckland's Department of Psychological Medicine, hopes that, if the study has positive outcomes, it will result in a new treatment being widely available for advanced-stage cancer patients in New Zealand within the next few years.

“This is really meaningful work because it has potential to support people in what can sometimes be a really difficult time of their life,” she says.

Dr Will Evans, Mana Health Medical Director, says the trial will also enable New Zealand health professionals to be trained in administering MDMA-assisted therapy, with US-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) Public Benefit Corporation providing both the MDMA medicine and the therapist training for the study.

The trial will involve around 50 participants receiving multiple sessions of psychotherapy combined with either carefully controlled doses of MDMA or a placebo, administered in a controlled and supportive therapeutic environment.

“This treatment catalyses insight and awareness, and can promote wellbeing and resilience in the face of suffering.

“In this sense, psychedelic-assisted therapy has the potential to completely change our approach to disease treatment,” Dr Evans says.

The study has also captured the attention of Tim Ferriss. The investor, entrepreneur, and author, has a keen interest in supporting clinical research into psychedelic drugs and has donated funds to the trial.

The researchers hope more funders will come forward to help them complete the project, as this trial could pave the way for an effective new treatment for depression and anxiety, especially in those with terminal illnesses.

Study website

The EMMAC Study

For more information, contact:

Ellie Rowley
Communications Adviser
University of Otago
Mob +64 21 278 8200

Jodi Yeats
Media Adviser
University of Auckland
Mob +64 27 202 6372

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