The Sydney students synthesising psychedelics for health research

12 November 2019
Magic mushrooms as medicine?

Six science undergraduates have won gold in an international competition with a project to manufacture the active compound in magic mushrooms. The psychedelic could be the next big thing in depression treatment.

Portrait of the iGEM team

The iGEM team

A group of undergraduate students from the University of Sydney have earned a gold medal in an international science competition, with a project to synthesise the active compound in magic mushrooms.

The six Bachelor of Science students travelled to Boston to compete in the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition (iGEM) for students interested in synthetic biology. Their project to manufacture psilocybin, a psychedelic drug that could be used to treat mental illness, won a gold medal – an accolade reserved for the competition's best projects. Their work was also nominated for best therapeutics project, best webpage and best software, placing them in the top three of 76 teams in those categories.

Even frightening psychedelic experiences, colloquially known as bad trips, have potential therapeutic value.

Magic mushrooms and medicine

Psilocybin occurs naturally in some species of mushroom. When taken as a drug, it can cause hallucinations and changes in perception. It is currently being tested in clinical trials around the world as a potential treatment for conditions including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction and anorexia nervosa.

“There are a lot of promising clinical trials that are indicating this is going to be the next big therapeutic for some mental health issues,” said team member and third-year science student Emma Todd.

In international trials, patients have taken psilocybin under medical supervision. Treatment sessions include counselling before and after the psychedelic experience. Results from Johns Hopkins and New York universities, along with a smaller study at Imperial College, London, showed clear changes in brain activity among depressed people after a single dose.

Even frightening psychedelic experiences, colloquially known as bad trips, appear to have potential therapeutic value, encouraging patients to confront challenging experiences or emotions.

Detail shot of the iGEM team's lab work

The team worked to make “magic E. coli” by adding magic mushroom genes to bacteria.

Synthesising psychedelics

Todd and her team mates, Fahad Ali, Isobel Magrath, Nathan Hawkins, Benj Gonzaga and Merrie Caruana, worked in the lab to engineer E. coli bacteria to synthesise psilocybin. Their aim was to make “magic E. coli” by adding four magic mushroom genes to the bacteria.

Bacteria that manufacture psilocybin could be grown much faster and more easily than wild mushrooms, and the process would be more straightforward to scale to an industrial level.

Currently, most clinical trials use chemically manufactured psilocybin, which is expensive to produce and creates environmentally harmful by-products.

“In biologically synthesising psilocybin, we’re trying to make the cheapest, most effective, most scalable, most environmentally friendly production possible,” said Magrath.

A transformative research experience

At the iGEM competition, the students presented their results through talks, a poster presentation and a website. The team’s academic supervisor, Associate Professor Nicholas Coleman from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, said the competition offered an authentic research experience, allowing students to design, manage and troubleshoot their own project.

“This competition offers a unique research-led teaching opportunity, which develops graduate attributes often neglected in teaching programs,” Associate Professor Coleman said. “It combines lab work with team work, problem solving and communication skills, and encourages personal and professional responsibility. iGEM is also unique in its focus on safety and ethics – issues students may not have had to think about before."

From 2020, the University of Sydney’s participation in the competition will be supported by a $300,000 donation from alumni Bruce Chen and his family. Mr Chen, who graduated with a Master of Pharmacy (Pharmaceutical Chemistry) in 1994, will support student travel and accommodation, as well as research costs, over the next three years.

For this year’s team, the competition has been a transformative experience. All six participating students plan to build on their undergraduate studies with honours research.

“I feel like we’re going to be so much better equipped as honours students and PhD students because of this experience,” said Todd. “It’s really exciting to get some exposure to what it’s actually like to manage a research project in your own time – being thrown in the deep end and having to do everything yourself.

“And with this particular research project, it feels like we’re doing something really worthwhile.”

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