HMS Will Give Ecstasy to Terminal Cancer Patients

Program will be Harvard’s first study of psychedelic drugs since the 1960s

More than 40 years after Harvard dismissed Timothy F. Leary for using undergraduates in his LSD experiments, Harvard scientists are reopening the door to psychedelic drug research.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently approved a study looking at the potential therapeutic effects of 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA)—an illegal hallucinatory drug also known as “Ecstasy”—in terminally ill cancer patients at McLean Hospital, a major teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School (HMS).

Until 2002, the FDA had not approved a study involving the therapeutic impact of psychedelic drugs since the 1970s. The Harvard study is the fourth such study to be approved in the past two years—the other studies examine the drug’s potential salutary effects for conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

“This has the potential to be the base to coordinate psychedelic research going on around the country,” said Richard E. Doblin, president of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), the organization sponsoring the Harvard study.

Normally, MDMA induces feelings of empathy, decreased anxiety, and decreased tension in users. It is this aspect which renders MDMA a potential therapeutic drug, according to John H. Halpern, associate director of substance abuse research at McLean Hospital and leader of the study.

“Terminally ill cancer patients experience extreme anxiety due to their medical condition,” said Halpern. “In [a drug-induced] state, a person would be better able to talk about matters that are causing them to have an anxiety attack.”

Halpern said MDMA has more therapeutic potential than other hallucinatory drugs because it rarely results in a “bad trip.”

“MDMA, unlike traditional hallucinogens that can make a person lose their sense of self, lets a person keep their identity,” said Halpern, who is also a HMS instructor of psychiatry.

What’s important, Doblin said, is how patients “build a bridge from that experience into your daily life.” Doblin, who is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, said that MDMA has already helped patients. He cited his work with a friend’s father, who was dying of cancer in his 50s.

“He was focusing all of his attention on the time that he didn’t have,” Doblin said. “MDMA made him appreciate the time that he did have.”

Doblin stressed that MDMA is not a miracle drug.

“It does not take you away from the pain, but rather through the pain,” he said. “You go through a more fluid emotional state.”

According to Doblin, it was this unrealistic set of expectations that threw public opinion about psychedelic drugs wildly into disfavor in the 1960s, after the “fiasco” with Leary’s research at Harvard.

“Socially, it swung too far in each direction,” he said. “I wish for a more moderate approach.”

In 1963, Leary, then a lecturer in clinical psychology at Harvard, was dismissed along with then Assistant Professor of Clinicial Psychology Richard Alpert amidst a flurry of controversy involving their studies of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and psilocybin mushrooms.

Doblin said that Leary’s dismissal effectively shut down psychedelic drug research.

Charles S. Grob, chief of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, said that the Harvard study marks significant progress in the development of psychedelic drug research, although he maintains that there is still much to be done.

“Getting approval for the study is significant insofar as getting work going in the area,” he said. “Progress has been very slow and halting, because very few psychiatrists have expressed their interest in looking at this area.”

—Staff writer Risheng Xu may be reached at xu4@fas.harvard.edu.