Lady Amanda Feilding, the Countess of Wemyss and March, has spent 50 years studying and experimenting with a variety of drugs, including ‘microdosing’ LSD

Credit: Luke MacGregor
/Bloomberg

An Oxford-based psychedelic drugs start-up founded by an aristocrat who once drilled a hole in her own skull has raised $80m (£58m) to fund its research.

Beckley Psytech is hoping to treat neurological conditions using the active ingredients of magic mushrooms and a hallucinogenic found in the glands of a Mexican toad. It will use the cash to investigate the possibility that small doses of psychedelics can treat chronic headaches and depression.

The business was co-founded by 78-year-old Lady Amanda Feilding, a drug policy reformer dubbed the “Queen of Consciousness” by New Scientist, and is run by her son, Cosmo Feilding Mellen, who is its chief executive.

Lady Feilding has spent 50 years studying and experimenting with a variety of drugs, including “microdosing” LSD, where tiny quantities of the drug are taken to supposedly improve brain function.

Officially the Countess of Wemyss and March, Lady Feilding set up a think-tank called the Foundation to Further Consciousness on the back of a lifelong interest in mysticism. This organisation is now named the Beckley Foundation, and Beckley Psytech was spun out of it in 2019.

Mazatec psilocybin mushrooms, harvested from their growing tubs

Credit: Joe Amon/MediaNews Group/The Den/Denver Post

Lady Feilding gained notoriety for her research into trepanning, a process used for thousands of years that involves drilling or carving a hole into the skull down to the brain and was associated in ancient and medieval cultures with relieving headaches and mental illness.

Along with her partner Joey Mellen, the countess experimented with “self-trepanation”, or drilling holes in their own heads. In 1970, Lady Feilding’s experiment was documented in the short film Heartbeat on the Brain, where she trepans her skull, aged 27, with a dentist’s drill.

Beckely Psytech is researching whether a synthetic version of psilocybin, commonly found in so-called “magic mushrooms”, can be used to treat short-lasting unilateral neuralgiform headaches. The rare headache condition affects 45,000 people in the US and Europe. The new funds will be used to complete a phase one patient trial with low doses of the drug.

It will also study whether depression can be treated with small doses of 5-MeO-DMT, known to be found in a variety of plant species and the glands of the Sonoran Desert Toad, where it functions as a poison. The chemical is similar to DMT, which is used in Central and South American cultures and is notorious for its powerful effects.

‘When I was growing up, my mum was dismissed as a weirdo, but now she is seen as a visionary,’ said Beckley’s chief executive, Cosmo Feilding Mellen

Credit: Luke MacGregor
/Bloomberg

Beckley’s funding round was led by Integrated, a healthcare focused investor, along with Prime Movers Labs and other venture funds. The round initially sought to raise $50m, but was oversubscribed. Early investors in the company included Jim Mellon, a so-called “bad boy of Brexit” who campaigned to leave the European Union alongside Arron Banks.

Psychedelic investment has exploded as new drug makers seek to turn taboo substances into marketable medicines, following the boom in cannabis stocks.

Psychedelics have been decriminalised in some US states and many are seen as innovative ways to treat mental health conditions. Although research was banned in the 1960s and scientists interested in hallucinogenics were ostracised as part of the “war on drugs”, since the 1990s, studies on psychedelics have picked up more mainstream support. In 2017, the Federal Drug Administration granted “breakthrough” status to a treatment relying on the illegal drug MDMA, or ecstasy.

The late Steve Jobs, creator of the iPhone, once said taking LSD was ‘one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life’

Credit: Justin Sullivan
/Getty Images

According to an estimate from analysts at Canaccord Genuity, the market for novel mental health medicines could be worth $100bn.

UK company Compass Pathways, which is developing antidepressants based on magic mushrooms, floated in New York last year and is now worth $1.2bn.

Lady Feilding is the chairman of Beckley Psytech’s scientific board, which includes experts from Imperial College, Johns Hopkins and Oxford University.

Mr Feilding Mellen, Beckley’s chief executive, said of Lady Feilding’s work: “She had a great belief that psychedelics had great promise as medicine, but they were ignored due to stigma. The aim was to conduct good quality science and dispel those myths.”

He added: “Undoubtedly, the connotations of the counterculture movement did not help. Research ground to a halt due to bans for several decades.

“But when induced in a controllers setting, combined with psychotherapy, psychedelics can have a profound impact on mental health disorders. The UK happens to be a great centre for psychedelic research.

“When I was growing up, my mum was dismissed as a weirdo, but now she is seen as a visionary.”