From the Editor

Maddening therapies: How hallucinogens morphed into novel treatments

In medicine we must always expect the unexpected. Medicine is replete with paradoxes, where poisons become cures.



Snake venom is deadly but is being used to treat some cancers,1 because it produces contortrostatin, a protein that “paralyzes” cancer cells and prevents them from migrating. Venoms from spiders are being investigated as a treatment to slow the progression of muscular dystrophy by preventing muscle cells from deteriorating. Venom from tarantulas can relieve chronic pain, and those from centipedes help rodents tolerate thermal, chemical, or acid pain. Scorpion venom can cause cancer cells to glow under a flashlight, enabling surgeons to locate and remove them. Anemones toxin could be used to treat autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and lupus.

Vaccines are an excellent example of how deadly pathogens can be transformed into life-saving therapies. Billions of people have been protected from polio, smallpox, tetanus, diphtheria, measles, mumps, rubella, influenza, pneumococcus, hepatitis A and B, rabies, shingles, typhoid, meningitis, or cholera. Turning killers into saviors is one of the most remarkable miracles of medical research.2

The mind-boggling transformation of mind-altering drugs

In psychiatry, psychedelic drugs have been repurposed into useful therapies for mental illness. As recently as a decade ago, psychiatric practitioners—physicians and nurse practitioners—regarded hallucinogens as dangerous, “must-avoid” drugs of abuse that could trigger or exacerbate serious psychiatric disorders. Then, thanks to ongoing research, the psychedelic “caterpillars” transformed into therapeutic “butterflies,” and the despised drugs of abuse became welcome adjuncts for treating some stubborn psychopathologies. Such paradoxical developments are emblematic of how one can always find a silver lining.

Consider the following transformations of various psychedelics and hallucinogens—also called “entheogens”—into novel pharmacotherapies. Note that in most cases, the application of these mind-altering drugs into useful medications is still a work in progress.


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