A clinical trial using MDMA-assisted psychotherapy to help terminal cancer patients struggling with depressive thoughts and emotions is about to start in New Zealand.

The trial will be a collaboration between the University of Otago, Waipapa Taumata Rau (University of Auckland) and independent provider Mana Health. 

It will involve around 50 people getting multiple sessions of psychotherapy combined with either carefully controlled doses of MDMA or a placebo, administered in a controlled and supportive therapeutic environment.

MDMA, also known as ecstasy, temporarily reduces activity in the amygdala, which is the part of the brain associated with fear.

Researchers say this can help people address underlying emotions linked to life regrets, unfinished business or past traumatic experiences.

Studies out of the US show psychedelic-assisted therapy looks promising in treating post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety in life-threatening illnesses, says Professor Paul Glue, Otago’s Hazel Buckland Chair in Psychological Medicine.

“Depression and anxiety are very common in people with advanced-stage cancer and can really impact the quality of life they have available,” he says. 

“This could be a really useful way to help people who don’t have a lot of time, helping them work through difficult thoughts and emotions, including fear of death.”

If the study has positive outcomes, Dr Lisa Reynolds, senior lecturer in the University of Auckland’s Department of Psychological Medicine, is hopeful it could be used as a new treatment for advanced-stage cancer patients in Aotearoa in the next few years. 

“This is really meaningful work because it has the potential to support people in what can sometimes be a really difficult time of their life,” she says.

Mana Health Medical Director Dr Will Evans says the trial will also enable New Zealand health professionals to be trained in administering MDMA-assisted therapy.

This treatment can promote well-being and resilience in the face of suffering, he says.

“In this sense, psychedelic-assisted therapy has the potential to completely change our approach to disease treatment.”

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