1 billion views! Why we should be concerned about PR campaign for 2 RCTs of psilocybin for cancer patients

According to the website of an advocacy foundation, coverage of two recent clinical trials published in in Journal of Psychopharmacology evaluating psilocybin for distress among cancer patients garnered over 1 billion views in the social media. To put that in context, the advocacy group claimed that this is one sixth of the attention that the Super Bowl received.

In this blog post I’ll review the second of the two clinical trials. Then, I will discuss some reasons why we should be concerned about the success of this public relations campaign in terms of what it means for both the integrity of scientific publishing, as well as health and science journalism.

The issue is not doubt that cancer patients will find benefit from the ingesting psychedelic mushroom in a safe environment. Nor that sale and ingestion of psilocybin is currently criminalized (Schedule 1, classified same as heroin).

We can appreciate the futility of the war on drugs, and the absurdity of the criminalization of psilocybin, but still object to how, we were strategically and effectively manipulated by this PR campaign.

Even if we approve of a cause, we need to be careful about subordinating the peer-review process and independent press coverage to the intended message of advocates.

Tolerating causes being promoted in this fashion undermines the trustworthiness of peer review and of independent press coverage of scientific papers.

To contradict a line from the 1964 acceptance speech of Republican Presidential Candidate Barry Goldwater, “Extremism in pursuit of virtue is no [a] vice. “

In this PR campaign –

We witnessed the breakdown of expected buffer of checks and balances between:

  • An advocacy group versus reporting of clinical trials in a scientific journal evaluating its claims.
  • Investigators’ exaggerated self-promotional claims versus editorial review and peer commentary.
  • Materials from the publicity campaign versus supposedly independent evaluation by journalists.

What if the next time the object of promotion is pharmaceuticals or medical devices by authors with conflicts of interest? But wait! Isn’t that what we’ve seen in JAMA Network journals on a smaller scale? Such as dubious claims about the wondrous effects of deep brain stimulation in JAMA: Psychiatry by promoters who “disappeared” failed trials? And claims in JAMA itself that suicides were eliminated at a behavioral health organization outside Detroit?

Is this part of a larger trend, where advocacy and marketing shape supposedly peer-reviewed publications in prestigious medical journals?

The public relations campaign for the psilocybin RCTs also left in tatters the credibility of altmetrics as an alternative to journal impact factors. The orchestrating of 1 billion views is a dramatic demonstration how altmetrics can be readily gamed. Articles published in a journal with a modest impact factor scored spectacularly, as seen in these altmetrics graphics the Journal of Psychopharmacology posted.

I reviewed in detail one of the clinical trials in my last blog post and will review the second in this one. They are both mediocre, poorly designed clinical trials that got lavishly praised as being highest quality by an impressive panel of commentators. I’ll suggest that in particular the second trial is best seen as what Barney Caroll has labeled  an experimercial, a clinical trial aimed at generating enthusiasm for a product, rather than a dispassionate evaluation undertaken with some possibility of not been able to reject the null hypothesis. If this sounds harsh, please indulge me and read on and be entertained and I think persuaded that this was not a clinical trial but an elaborate ritual, complete with psychobabble woo that has no place in the discussion of the safety and effectiveness of medicine.

After skeptically scrutinizing the second trial, I’ll consider the commentaries and media coverage of the two trials.

I’ll end with a complaint that this PR effort is only aimed at securing the right of wealthy people with cancer to obtain psilocybin under supervision of a psychiatrist and in the context of woo psychotherapy. The risk of other people in other circumstances ingesting psilocybin is deliberately exaggerated. If psilocybin is as safe and beneficial as claimed by these articles, why should use remain criminalized for persons who don’t have cancer or don’t want to get a phony diagnosis from a psychiatrist or don’t want to submit to woo psychotherapy?

The normally pay walled Journal of Psychopharmacology granted free access to the two articles, along with most but not all of the commentaries. However, extensive uncritical coverage in Medscape Medical News provides a fairly accurate summary, complete with direct quotes of lavish self-praise distributed by the advocacy-affiliated investigators and echoed in seemingly tightly coordinated commentaries.

The praise one of the two senior authors heaped upon their two studies as captured in Medscape Medical News and echoed elsewhere:

The new findings have “the potential to transform the care of cancer patients with psychological and existential distress, but beyond that, it potentially provides a completely new model in psychiatry of a medication that works rapidly as both an antidepressant and anxiolytic and has sustained benefit for months,” Stephen Ross, MD, director of Substance Abuse Services, Department of Psychiatry, New York University (NYU), Langone Medical Center, told Medscape Medical News.

And:

“That is potentially earth shattering and a big paradigm shift within psychiatry,” Dr Ross told Medscape Medical News.

The Hopkins Study

Griffiths RR, Johnson MW, Carducci MA, Umbricht A, Richards WA, Richards BD, Cosimano MP, Klinedinst MA. Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial. Journal of Psychopharmacology. 2016 Dec 1;30(12):1181-97.

The trial’s available registration is at ClinicalTrial.gov is available here.

The trial’s website is rather drab and typical for clinical trials. It contrasts sharply with the slick PR of the website for the NYU trial . The latter includes a gushy, emotional  video from a clinical psychologist participating as a patient in the study.  She delivers a passionate pitch for the “wonderful ritual” of the transformative experimental session. You can also get a sense of how session monitor structured the session and cultivated positive expectations. You also get a sense of the psilocybin experience being slickly marketed to appeal to the same well-heeled patients who pay out-of-pocket for complementary and alternative medicine at integrative medicine centers.

Conflict of interest

The authors declared the following potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: Roland Griffiths is on the Board of Directors of the Heffter Research Institute.

Heffter Research Institute is listed as one of the funders of the study.

The introduction.

 The Hopkins study starts with some familiar claims from psycho-oncology ] that portray cancer as a mental health issue. The exaggerated estimates of 40% of cancer patients experiencing a mood disorder is arrived at by lumping adjustment reactions with a smaller proportion of diagnoses of generalized anxiety and major depression.

The introduction contradicts a large body of literature that suggests that the prevalence of mental disorder in cancer patients is no greater than other chronic health conditions  and may approximate what is found in primary care waiting rooms . There is also a fundamental confusion of psychological distress associated with diagnosis of cancer with psychiatric disorder in need of treatment. Much of the initial psychological distress in cancer patients resolves in a short time, making it difficult to demonstrate benefits of treatment beyond this natural trajectory of decline. Prescription of an antidepressant would be ineffective and inappropriate.

The introduction ends with a strong claim to the rigor and experimental control exercised in the clinical trial:

The present study provides the most rigorous evaluation to date of the efficacy of a classic hallucinogen for treatment of depressed mood and anxiety in psychologically distressed cancer patients. The study evaluated a range of clinically relevant measures using a double-blind cross-over design to compare a very low psilocybin dose (intended as a placebo) to a moderately high psilocybin dose in 51 patients under conditions that minimized expectancy effects.

The methods and results

In a nutshell: Despite claims to the contrary, this study cannot be considered a blinded study. At the six month follow-up, which is the outcome assessment point of greatest interest, it could no longer meaningfully considered a randomized trial. All benefits of randomization were lost. In addition, the effects of psilocybin were confounded with a woo psychotherapy in which positive expectations and support were provided and reinforced in a way that likely influenced assessments of outcome. Outcomes at six months also reflected changes in distress which would’ve occurred in the absence of treatment. The sample is inappropriate for generalizations about the treatment of major depression and generalized anxiety. The characterization of patients as facing impending death is inaccurate.

 The study involved a crossover design, which provides a lower level of evidence than a placebo controlled comparison study. The study compared a high psilocybin dose (22 or 30 mg/70 kg) with a low dose (1 or 3 mg/70 kg) administered in identically appearing capsules. While the low dose might not be homeopathic, it can be readily distinguished soon after administration from the larger dosage. The second drug administration occurred approximately 5 weeks later. Not surprisingly, with the high difference in dosage, session monitors who were supposedly blinded readily identified the group to which the participant they were observing had been assigned.

Within a cross over design, the six month follow-up data basically attributed any naturalistic decline in distress to the drug treatments. As David Colquhoun would argue, any estimate of the effects of the drug was inflated by including regression to the mean and get-better anyway effects. Furthermore, the focus on outcomes at six months meant patients assigned to either group in the crossover design had received high dosage psilocybin by at least five weeks into the study. Any benefits of randomization were lost.

Like the NYU study, the study Johns Hopkins involves selecting a small, unrepresentative sample of a larger group responding to a mixed recruitment strategy utilizing flyers, the internet, and physician referral.

  • Less than 10% of the cancer patients calling in were randomized.
  • Almost half of the final sample were currently using marijuana and, similarly, almost half had used hallucinogens in the past.
  • The sample is relatively young for cancer patients and well educated. More than half had postgraduate education, almost all were white, but there were two black people.
  • The sample is quite heterogeneous with respect to psychiatric diagnoses, with almost half having an adjustment disorder, and the rest anxiety and mood disorders.
  • In terms of cancer diagnoses and staging, it was also a select and heterogeneous group with only about a quarter having recurrent/metastatic disease with less than two years of expected survival. This suggests the odd “life-threatening” in the title is misleading.

Any mental health effects of psilocybin as a drug are inseparable from the effects of accompanying psychotherapy designed by a clinical psychologist “with extensive experience in studies of classic hallucinogens.” Participants met with that “session monitor” several times before the session in which the psilocybin was ingested in the monitor guided and aided in the interpretation of the drug experience. Aside from providing therapy, the session monitor instructed the patient to have positive expectations before the ingestion of the drug and work to maintain these expectations throughout the experience.

I found this psychotherapeutic aspect of the trial strikingly similar to one that was included in a trial of homeopathy in Germany that I accepted for publication in PLOS One. [See here for my rationale for accepting the trial and the ensuing controversy.] Trials of alternative therapies notoriously have such an imbalance of nonspecific placebo factors favoring the intervention group.

The clinical trial registration indicates that the primary outcome was the Pahnke-Richards Mystical Experience Questionnaire. This measure is included among 20 participant questionnaires listed in the Table 3 in the article as completed seven hours after administration of psilocybin. Although I haven’t reviewed all of these measures, I’m skeptical about their psychometric development, intercorrelation, and validation beyond face validity. What possibly could be learned from administering such a battery?

The authors make unsubstantiated assumptions in suggesting that these measures either individually or collectively capture mediation of later response assessed by mental health measures. A commentary echoed this:

Mediation analysis indicates that the mystical experience was a significant mediator of the effects of psilocybin dose on therapeutic outcomes.

But one of the authors of the commentary later walked that back with a statement to Medscape Medical News:

As for the mystical experiences that some patients reported, it is not clear whether these are “a cause, consequence or corollary of the anxiolytic effect or unconstrained cognition.”

Clinical outcomes at six months are discussed in terms of multiple measures derived from the unblinded, clinician-rated Hamilton scales. However, there are repeated references to box scores of the number of significant findings from at least 17 clinical measures (for instance, significant effects for 11 of the 17 measures), in addition to other subjective patient and significant-other measures. It is unclear why the authors would choose to administer so many measures that are highly likely intercorrelated.

There were no adverse events attributed to administration of psilocybin, and while there were a number of adverse psychological effects during the session with the psilocybin, none were deemed serious.

My summary evaluation

The clinical trial registration indicates broad inclusion criteria which may suggest the authors anticipated difficulty in recruiting patients that had significant psychiatric disorder for which psychotropic medication would be appropriate, as well as difficulty obtaining cancer patients that actually had poorer prognoses. Regardless, descriptions of the study is focusing on anxiety and depression and on “life-threatening” cancer seem to be marketing. You typically do not see a mixed sample with a large proportion of adjustment reaction characterized in the title of a psychiatric journal as treatment of “anxiety” and “depression”. You typically do not see a the adjective “life-threatening” in the title of an oncology article with such a mixed sample of cancer patients.

The authors could readily have anticipated that at the six-month assessment point of interest that they no longer had a comparison they could have been described as a rigorous double-blind, randomized trial. They should have thought through exactly what was being controlled by a control comparison group of a minimal dose of psilocybin. They should have been clearer that they were not simply evaluating psilocybin, but psilocybin administered in the context of a psychotherapy and an induction of strong positive expectations and promise of psychological support.

The finding of a lack of adverse events is consistent with a large literature, but is contradicted in the way the study is described to the media.

The accompanying editorial and commentary

Medscape Medical News reports the numerous commentaries accompanies these two clinical trials were hastily assembled. Many of the commentaries read that way, with the authors uncritically passing on the psilocybin authors’ lavish self praise of their work, after a lot of redundant recounts of the chemical nature of psilocybin and its history in psychiatry. When I repeatedly encountered claims that these trials represented rigorous, double blinded clinical trials or suggestions that the cancer was in a terminal phase, I assumed that the authors had not read the studies, only the publicity material, or simply had suspended all commitment to truth.

harmsI have great admiration for David Nutt  and respect his intellectual courage in campaigning for the decriminalization of recreational drugs, even when he knew that it would lead to his dismissal as chairman of the UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). He has repeatedly countered irrationality and prejudice with solid evidence. His graph depicting the harms of various substances to the uses and others deserves the wide distribution that it has received.

He ends his editorial with praise for the two trials as “the most rigorous double-blind placebo-controlled trials of a psychedelic drug in the past 50 years.” I’ll give him a break and assume that that reflects his dismal assessment of the quality of the other trials. I applaud his declaration, available nowhere else in the commentaries that:

There was no evidence of psilocybin being harmful enough to be controlled when it was banned, and since then, it has continued to be used safely by millions of young people worldwide with a very low incidence of problems. In a number of countries, it has remained legal, for example in Mexico where all plant products are legal, and in Holland where the underground bodies of the mushrooms (so-called truffles) were exempted from control.

His description of the other commentaries accompanying the two trials is apt:

The honours list of the commentators reads like a ‘who’s who’ of American and European psychiatry, and should reassure any waverers that this use of psilocybin is well within the accepted scope of modern psychiatry. They include two past presidents of the American Psychiatric Association (Lieberman and Summergrad) and the past-president of the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (Goodwin), a previous deputy director of the Office of USA National Drug Control Policy (Kleber) and a previous head of the UK Medicines and Healthcare Regulatory Authority (Breckenridge). In addition, we have input from experienced psychiatric clinical trialists, leading pharmacologists and cancer-care specialists. They all essentially say the same thing..

The other commentaries. I do not find many of the commentaries worthy of further comment. However, one by Guy M Goodwin, Psilocybin: Psychotherapy or drug? Is unusual in offering even mild skepticism about the way the investigators are marketing their claims:

The authors consider this mediating effect as ‘mystical’, and show that treatment effects correlate with a subjective scale to measure such experience. The Oxford English Dictionary defines mysticism as ‘belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender’. Perhaps a scale really can measure a relevant kind of experience, but it raises the caution that the investigation of hallucinogens as treatments may be endangered by grandiose descriptions of their effects and unquestioning acceptance of their value.

The commentary by former president of the American Psychiatric Association Paul Summergrad, Psilocybin in end of life care: Implications for further research shamelessly echoes the psychobabble and self-promotion of the authors of the trials:

The experiences of salience, meaningfulness, and healing that accompanied these powerful spiritual experiences and that were found to be mediators of clinical response in both of these carefully performed studies are also important to understand in their own right and are worthy of further study and contemplation. None of us are immune from the transitory nature of human life, which can bring fear and apprehension or conversely a real sense of meaning and preciousness if we carefully number our days. Understanding where these experiences fit in healing, well-being, and our understanding of consciousness may challenge many aspects of how we think about mental health or other matters, but these well-designed studies build upon a recent body of work that confronts us squarely with that task.

Coverage in of the two studies in the media

The website for Heffter Research Institute  provides a handy set of links to some of the press coverage of the studies have received. There’s remarkable sameness to the portrayal of the study in the media, suggesting that journalists stayed closely to the press releases, except occasionally supplementing these with direct quotes from the authors. The appearance of a solicitation of independent evaluation of the trial almost entirely dependent on the commentaries published with the two articles.

There’s a lot of slick marketing by the two studies’ authors. In addition to what I wrote noted earlier in the blog, there are recurring unscientific statements marketing the psilocybin experience:

“They are defined by a sense of oneness – people feel that their separation between the personal ego and the outside world is sort of dissolved and they feel that they are part of some continuous energy or consciousness in the universe. Patients can feel sort of transported to a different dimension of reality, sort of like a waking dream.

There are also recurring distinct efforts to keep the psilocybin experience under the control of psychiatrists and woo clinical psychologists:

The new studies, however, suggest psilocybin be used only in a medical setting, said Dr. George Greer, co-founder, medical director and secretary at the Heffter Research Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which funded both studies.

“Our focus is scientific, and we’re focused on medical use by medical doctors,” Greer said at the news conference. “This is a special type of treatment, a special type of medicine. Its use can be highly controlled in clinics with specially trained people.”

He added he doubts the drug would ever be distributed to patients to take home.

There are only rare admissions from an author of one of the studies that:

The results were similar to those they had found in earlier studies in healthy volunteers. “In spite of their unique vulnerability and the mood disruption that the illness and contemplation of their death has prompted, these participants have the same kind of experiences, that are deeply meaningful, spiritually significant and producing enduring positive changes in life and mood and behaviour,” he said.

If psilocybin is so safe and pleasant to ingest…

I think the motion of these studies puts ingestion of psilocybin on the path to being allowed in nicely furnished integrative cancer centers. In that sense psilocybin could become a gateway drug to quack services such as acupuncture, reiki, and energy-therapy therapeutic touch.

I’m not sure that demand would be great except among previous users of psychedelics and current users of cannabis.

But should psilocybin remain criminalized outside of cancer centers where wealthy patients can purchase a diagnosis of adjustment reaction from a psychiatrist? Cancer is not especially traumatic and PTSD is almost as common in the waiting rooms of primary care physicians. Why not extend to primary care physicians the option of prescribing psilocybin to their patients? What would be accomplished is that the purity could be assured. But why should psilocybin use being limited to mental health conditions, once we accept that a diagnosis of adjustment reaction is such a distorted extension of the term? Should we exclude patients who are atheists and only wants a satisfying experience, not a spiritual one?

Experience in other countries suggests that psilocybin can safely be ingested in a supportive, psychologically safe environment. Why not allow cancer patients and others to obtain psilocybin with assured purity and dosage? They could then ingest it in the comfort of friends and intimate partners who have been briefed on how the experience needs to be managed. The patients in the studies were mostly not facing immediate death from terminal cancer. But should we require that persons need to be dying in order to have a psilocybin experience without the risk of criminal penalties? Why not allow psilocybin to be ingested in the presence of pastoral counselors or priests whose religious beliefs are more congruent with the persons seeking such experiences than are New York City psychiatrists?