Whether or not the Missouri General Assembly moves on proposed bills this session, research on psychedelics to treat mental health is ramping up nationwide. Husch Blackwell’s new psychedelics and emerging therapies practice group seeks to answer that call, said Kansas City partner Curt Chase.
The group falls under the firm’s health care, life sciences and education industry group headed by Chase since 2013. Its creation formalizes the firm’s ability to assist clients who are building the body of research on new therapies for mental health and others who are eyeing it for future commercialization, and it’s the first Am Law 100 firm to do so.
“There are a lot of firms that are starting to dabble in this area, and they’re focusing on niche issues within the area, such as only FDA regulations or corporate work,” Chase said. “Whereas what we’re bringing is kind of this interdisciplinary team because we touch all of those areas in a very focused effort.”
Chase said that while also drawing from the cannabis law group, the expertise of the group’s nine attorneys extends from health care and intellectual property to Food and Drug Administration and Drug Enforcement Agency regulatory issues.
“We’re drawing heavily on our cannabis group because they have navigated this type of issue between federal, state, regulatory requirements and done really well,” Chase said. “We felt like they had plowed that ground and knew how to do it the right way.”
Not just a shot in the dark
Three California-based senior counsel — Kimberly I. Chew, who is a former research scientist; Karen Luong; and Natasha V. Sumner — lead the group. The three joined Husch from a group of 21 Dentons attorneys who left the firm last year to form Husch Blackwell’s California offices. When they pitched the idea for the group, Chase said the firm’s research supported their efforts.
“There’s a lot of new and interesting ideas that don’t make for good law firm legal guidance,” Chase said.
But this one won out. Chase said the firm was burgeoned by preliminary clinical trials for these therapies, and was able to identify a client base of large universities and academic medical centers who seek to comply with regulations as they conduct their own clinical trials, as well as health care providers interested in these therapies.
The FDA’s designation of psilocybin and MDMA as “breakthrough therapies” allows further controlled trials. If evidence builds for current Schedule I drugs like MDMA or psilocybin, it opens up the possibility that they will be rescheduled. The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies estimates MDMA will be rescheduled by 2023, while estimates for psilocybin expect the drug to follow in years after that.
Emerging in the state
In Missouri, the Washington University School of Medicine’s Healthy Mind Lab is studying the effects of psilocybin on the brain in healthy individuals. A handful of ketamine clinics exist in the state, which provide the Schedule III drug in controlled settings to treat major depression and other mental health disorders.
Rep. Michael Davis, R-Kansas City, has filed a bill that seeks to amend Missouri’s state-level Right to Try law to allow eligible patients to seek out Schedule I drugs, which include MDMA and psilocybin, and extend eligibility to patients with debilitating or life-threatening conditions. It failed to pass out of committee last year, and its current iteration, House Bill 2429, has yet to be scheduled for a committee hearing.
Rep. Tony Lovasco, R-O’Fallon, proposed House Bill 2850 this year, which seeks to allow patients with treatment-resistant types of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and other mental health conditions to try experimental treatments in a controlled setting. It would also allow these patients to carry up to four grams of the natural substances. HB 2850 was reviewed during the Health and Mental Health Policy’s public hearing on Monday, March 21.
“The idea behind this is that ultimately, the types of folks that are needing alternatives are not likely to find a whole lot of research studies and whatnot to join until states proactively start passing legislation to provide those criminal protections,” Lovasco said during the hearing.
Chase and the emerging therapies practice group, meanwhile, are focused on the national scale. In the event of federal policies changing, he said that Husch also has identified a future commercial client base with potential from venture capital, private equity, the pharmaceutical industry and other investors.
“They’re watching intently,” Chase said. “But until some of the regulatory restrictions loosen and some of the research is a little further along, they’re probably going to wait and see and as soon as the market opens up, they’ll be at the front of that.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated the number of Dentons attorneys who left the firm to join Husch Blackwell in 2021. We regret the error.