It could be a trip worth taking — the final frontier for psychiatry may actually be psychedelics.

Maligned for decades as dangerous, illegal substances, psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”) LSD and mescaline are being studied as potential game-changers for alleviating treatment-resistant psychiatric problems, ranging from anxiety and depression to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Cognistx, a Carnegie Mellon University spinoff based in Downtown Pittsburgh, is working with the Canadian biotech firm MagicMed to develop PsyAI, an artificial intelligence platform to streamline pharmaceutical research and accelerate the modernization of psychedelic medicine.

There are millions of molecules to test when it comes to psychedelics that have to be screened for side effects as well as efficacy. Based on past tests and data, Cognistx can help figure out which molecules are most promising and rule out those that are not.

“So, don’t test those, but test these,” says Sanjay Chopra, founder and CEO of Cognistx. “We feel great about these molecules and their potential. So, basically, narrowing down the search space, and helping lab tests — and then, obviously, animal tests and eventually human tests — find molecules that will produce good results. So it really speeds up the drug discovery process.”

Photo courtesy of MagicMed.

This is a challenge of a completely different kind for Cognistx, which has until now been using AI to solve other dilemmas.

“A lot of other clients, like PPG, manufacturing companies come to us and say, ‘Hey can you look at this problem?’” says Chopra. “So we kind of became a bespoke AI company, solving many, many interesting problems, but mostly in logistics, supply chain, manufacturing and NLP (natural language processing — extracting information from documents, audio). Those are our sweet spots.”

Chopra co-founded the company with Chief Data Scientist Dr. Eric Nyberg. Chopra is a serial tech entrepreneur who licensed his pricing software company, Intellions, to Google. Nyberg is one of the world’s leading cognitive computing data scientists and was the academic consultant to IBM Watson, the supercomputer that won the game show “Jeopardy.”

A CMU connection led them to Calgary-based MagicMed, which intends to partner with drug companies to develop and commercialize psychedelic-derived pharmaceuticals.

“Our PsyAI tool is intended to gather and assess more data from bench studies, nonclinical studies and even clinical trials,” says Dr. Joseph Tucker, founder and CEO of MagicMed.

Chopra says big biotech pharma companies, such as Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Eli Lilly, could use AI for research into other drugs as well.

A recent study from Imperial College London of 59 patients with moderate to severe depression found that the psychedelic drug psilocybin was just as effective as the prescription drug Lexapro and worked faster to relieve depression.

“The convergence of AI and psychedelic medicine will result in a medical renaissance — all to benefit the treatment of mental health conditions,” says Chopra. “It’s very exciting to be at the nexus of this convergence of medicine with AI technology.”

Photo courtesy of MagicMed.

A few countries have decriminalized the use of psychedelic mushrooms, with Oregon becoming the first state to do so in November 2020.

Cognistx has about 30 people working Downtown, and will be hiring several more this year.