A Conversation with Dr Matthew Baggott
Neuroscientist, data scientist and psychopharmacology entrepreneur
Pharmaceutical entrepreneur and data scientist Matthew Baggott, the CEO and co-founder of Tactogen, never set out to enter the psychoactive pharmaceutical business.
As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago majoring in philosophy in the 1980s, Dr Baggott wanted to explore consciousness. His interests naturally piqued a curiosity about psychedelics.
Chicago turned out to be a good place for the pursuit of that study. Dr Charles Roberts Schuster who had founded and was the Director of the University of Chicago’s Drug Abuse Research Center had seeded the lab with scientists working at the forefront of psychoactive drug exploration. His colleague, Dr Lewis Seiden was one of the first to study the antidepressive effects of monoaminoxidase inhibitors and the toxicity of amphetamines.
“[The Schuster lab] was really the first to raise safety and health concerns about MDMA,” Dr Baggott said. When he arrived as an assistant, Dr Baggott’s goal was to find out how “science learn[s] what the truth is, especially in things like experience and consciousness,” said Dr Baggott. Although he’d had what he characterized as therapeutic experiences with LSD and MDMA, Dr Baggott could see there were credible causes for concern when it came to drug safety and toxicity.
Dr Baggott worked in the lab first as an undergraduate, then spent two years there full time after he graduated.
With guidance from Dr Alexander (Sasha) Shulgin, Dr Baggott moved to San Francisco and got a job at the University of California San Francisco at a lab which had been among the first to study the effects of LSD in humans. The lab had pivoted to cannabinoids in the early 1980s when regulatory prohibitions made it difficult to study LSD. Then, when Ronald Reagan came into office and “restarted reefer madness” as Dr Baggott put it, the lab pivoted again, this time doing substance abuse research and trying to come up with better therapies for stimulant and opioid use disorders.
In 1994, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) visited Dr Shulgin’s backyard lab and found evidence of illegal MDMA production. They shut it down. Then they visited the UCSF lab to make sure “we had all our ducks in row in terms of what molecules we had stored and how much,” said Dr Baggott. They were found to be clean, as far as the DEA was concerned. By then, the success of Dr Charles Grob and Dr Rick Doblin, Founder and Executive Director of MAPS, in obtaining permission for a Phase 1 human MDMA study, had begun to open regulatory doors. Dr Baggott’s lab was granted permission to study MDMA in humans.
Although they had an ambitious set of projects lined up to study substances such as MDE (3,4-methylenedioxyethamphetamine), and MDBD (1,3-Benzodioxolyl-N-methylbutanamine) ultimately they only had the time and resources for MDMA. One of the most valuable lessons he learned was how to move through the regulatory bureaucracy and get studies approved.
At the same time, street MDMA use was skyrocketing, both globally and domestically. Massive raves were taking place in and around San Francisco and Oakland. Adverse events were on the rise due to preparations cut with other drugs and toxic fillers.
Although Dr Baggott observed interesting and profound emotional experiences on the part of subjects in the lab, it was clear that science was failing to measure the most meaningful experiences. Language borrowed from the harm reduction world was most often employed when interviewing subjects, such as “asking ‘how high do you feel, do you want to take more of this now?’” said Dr Baggott.
He began to think about better ways to speak about MDMA experiences which could capture what he characterizes as “authenticity.”
“A reasonable concept to study [MDMA’s] effects would be to say it decreases neuroticism and allows people to feel less social anxiety, and crucially, less concern about how you are judging and evaluating yourself,” he said.
These features are the most interesting aspects of the experiences evoked by MDMA. Emotional changes can come about in therapeutic situations as well as spontaneously, during recreational MDMA use which go beyond alleviating anxiety and depression, the two most commonly studied categories in clinical psychedelic research.
By the time Dr Baggott earned his PhD in Neuroscience from the University of California Berkeley, the federal funding for MDMA research was drying up. He began working in data science. Between data science jobs, he conducted independent MDMA research studies on small groups of volunteers recruited from the community via newspaper ads, online announcements and word of mouth.
Then funding began flowing into psychedelics from venture capital. Psychedelic medicine had become a real field. He decided the way to move forward was to start a company.
Dr Baggott found Tactogen in 2020, a public benefit corporation1 dedicated to improving “individual and community health, primarily by developing new medicines and secondarily by encouraging healthy, humane, and sustainable ecosystems that can support effective psychedelic medicine.”2
Dr Baggott had no interest in creating a corporation that would oppose decriminalization or legalization. MDMA and similar molecules were a good choice for this path. The drug is entirely synthetic. There are no real examples of the molecule occurring naturally. Because it has to be manufactured as a white powder, it is regulated. The profile – as a regulated substance – lets Tactogen avoid many conflicts arising with pharmaceutical companies developing preparations of naturally occurring psychedelics – such as psilocybin – and the tensions between decriminalization, and medical and non-medical use.
Dr Baggott’s major task is writing patent applications to nail down the processes for producing “better molecules” as he puts it. In other words, preparations which reduce some of the less desirable features of MDMA.
Among the characteristics he’s weeding out are the drug’s tendency to cause acute hypertension. MDMA increases heart rate. This is fine for a young healthy person, but less so for a person with a possible heart condition.
“Do we give Carvedilol against hypertension at the same time as we administer MDMA?” said Dr Baggott. Or is the solution to create a version of MDMA that does not affect heart rate and provides better safety for patients, even with less monitoring, a take-home preparation of MDMA. As it stands now, most of drug’s cardiotoxicity is dose dependent. The greater the dose, the more likely a person will suffer hypertension.
Another less obvious issue is the “loss of magic,” a change in the subject’s sensations, plausibly related what’s been called “serotonergic neurotoxicity.”
“If you do a survey of 200 people who used MDMA [on multiple occasions] roughly half of them say it doesn’t feel the same as when they started using it. It’s still pleasant but there’s less of a magic than what it used to have. Sasha Shulgin termed this ‘loss of magic.’”
The phenomenon occurs in approximately half of the people who use MDMA over a several years. It’s less frequent in people who use the drug only a few times.
For therapeutic purposes, “it potentially means you’re not going to have the ability to use the medicine throughout your life,” said Dr Baggott. It won’t create a problem for getting MDMA approved for PTSD, where patients have a limited number of sessions but potentially becomes an issue where the same person wants to use MDMA a few years later if, for example, they’re going through a divorce or a loved one passes away and they want to process their grief or separation with the help of MDMA.
“What we’d like to do is find a molecule that has the MDMA therapeutic effects [which don’t] decrease with repeated use,” said Dr. Baggott.
Developing intellectual property (IP) and filing patents on novel molecules is part and parcel of what Dr Baggott does. The questions then arises: what happens when the patents are all buttoned up by corporations? How will this affect access?
“The issue of trying to handle [IP issue] with laws is you can make certain progress but there is a great deal of what is called regulatory capture from pharma.3 The money in the psychedelic medicine part of healthcare is always going to be much smaller than money in oncology and other places. That’s where lobbying is going to affect IP rules. The way to handle this is not through trying to change laws but through trying to create trade organizations. If you hold IP you can license it however you want,” said Dr Baggott.
Then there are always patent trolls to consider. A patent troll is a derogatory term used to describe a company that uses patent infringement claims to win court judgments for profit or to stifle competition. The term may be used to describe a number of business activities that utilize patents and the court system to earn money.4
“The problem is once IP is considered valuable, you start to get patent trolls buying up obscure patents and using those to extract money from businesses in the space. If that’s not happening already, we’re about to see it happening,” said Dr Baggott.
There are ways to combat patent trolling. The technology sector has used something called a ‘license on transfer network.’ Several interested organizations – in this case, psychedelic medicine companies – form a network. They agree if their IP is ever transferred to another entity – say in a sale of a company to a buyer not in the network – the IP is simultaneously licensed to every other member of the network.
“The idea is patent trolls buy patents from failed companies. Eventually a patent bad actor comes in to try to yank licenses already held by other companies, and starts suing companies holding licenses.” The network by virtue of its breadth and the reach of its IP makes this impossible.
Dr Baggott foresees creating a similar kind of network to encourage innovation so that best practices can evolve and become available without concern over infringement and prohibitive litigation: a psychedelic IP commons.
“I would like a lot of us to work together to make sure we can innovate and that innovation will spread to other practitioners,” he said. “It’s a conversation we’re only starting to have.”
The most important thing, however, says Dr Baggott, is the community health aspect of psychedelics. “As a public benefit corporation, we’re really interested in maintaining and improving the health of what you might call the psychedelic ecosystem.” He characterizes this as the vast wealth of knowledge about best practices and safety developed over decades prior to the medicalization of these substances. All of this activity has taken place below ground and off the radar of law enforcement agencies. The organizations at the forefront of these efforts are entirely run by volunteers.
He uses the example of the Zendo Project, Erowid, and DanceSafe which have all played an important role in harm reduction, education, and community building in the psychedelic world over the last three decades. “I’d like to see some of the money pouring into the psychedelic space being used to make those sorts of things stronger,” he said.
Dr Baggott’s view of psychedelic medicine is more broadly cooperative and socially forward looking than many businesses coming into this space.
“We don’t see psychedelic medicine as something that improves indvidual health because you’re never going to develop a molecule that will solve people’s problems when the problems are societal,” said Dr Baggott. “The psychedelic community has a long tradition of peer support and community practices, social meetups where we help each other integrate or simply come together and dance and celebrate. All these practices are healthy. Right now [we have] an opportunity to use the excitement about psychedelic medicine to elevate and refine some of these, and if nothing else give them support financially,” said Dr Baggott. “If we just take medicines and embed them in a bigger medical system, we’re going to fail. If we use the opportunity to also give recognition and support to these broad psychedelic community practices, then we can really make positive changes in communities. That needs to be an important focus for our efforts in the research, and to make psychedelics more accepted and respected and understood.”
A public benefit corporation differs from a regular for-profit corporation in that it has a stated charter to contribute to the social and public good and to operate in a responsible and sustainable manner.
Regulatory capture is an economic theory that says regulatory agencies may come to be dominated by the industries or interests they are charged with regulating. The result is that an agency, charged with acting in the public interest, instead acts in ways that benefit incumbent firms in the industry it is supposed to be regulating. Source: Investopedia.