by Sofia Misenheimer
July 21, 2023
Far removed from police-raided storefronts, one Montreal laboratory is pioneering a legal path in the realm of psychedelics. Cubed Biotech is cultivating substances like magic mushrooms, mescaline, and DMT, with a nod from the law, to alter perceptions about the potent compounds and potentially reshape the future of mental healthcare.
"Fewer than 5% of biotechs focus on natural production," Cubed founder and CEO Adam Coape-Arnold told MTL Blog. "There are around 46 dealers licensed in Canada growing psychedelic mushrooms, but we are the ones truly going end to end."
The company follows a spore-to-store production process, with plans to package "a finished pill in blister packs, sold at your local pharmacy and covered by RAMQ."
A bottle of muscimol and neurotoxin ibotenic acid, along with other chemicals used to synthesize the compounds in natural psychedelics.Will Prince | MTL Blog
Beyond psilocybin, Cubed is delving into lesser-known psychoactive compounds like muscimol. The substance, found in iconic red-and-white fly agaric mushrooms, is germinating interest as a sleep aid, sedative, and even as an opioid substitute.
"We focus on the classic psychedelics, the natural entheogens," said Coape-Arnold. That rules out MDMA, ketamine, and other compounds that sidestep the serotonergic system, which regulates feel-good hormones in the body and, if disrupted, can play a significant role in depression and anxiety.
With a unique arsenal of mind-bending molecules, Cubed plans to put its dealer's license to good use.
License to pill
While the term "dealer's license" may conjure images from a crime drama, for Cubed it means a government-endorsed pass to handle and transfer controlled substances. That authority, granted by Health Canada, lets the company cater to research institutions and medical practitioners across Canada and worldwide.
Cubed is already collaborating with McGill University, where researchers are exploring the link between psychedelics and new reward pathways in the brains of rats. In line with the high-level academic investigation, all Cubed products must undergo medical-grade sterilization and contain precise dosage.
Cubed Medicinal Chemist Pavol Tuna illustrates the molecule structure of synthetic psilocybin compounds, as they interact in the human body.Sofia Misenheimer | MTL Blog
Part of that process falls to Cubed Medicinal Chemist Pavol Tuna, who breaks down psilocybin and psilocin into their primary building blocks in order to recreate them synthetically.
"There are off-patent ways to learn, but we're trying to create more patentable unique methods… Plus, we're striving for medical-grade. So, it has to be really clean."
Cubed Biotech stands out in the industry for its two-fold approach. They not only cultivate natural psychedelic compounds from their own mushroom species but also create laboratory-synthesized counterparts. That adaptability to both the organic and the engineered sets them apart as Coape-Arnold explained, "Synthetic works quite well in clinical trials, but natural substances hold their own mystery and potential."
Rooted in respect.
Coape-Arnold's respect for the shamanic origins of ayahuasca, for instance, extends beyond rhetoric. The company has consulted a bioethicist to guide operations. "We've seen what over-harvesting can do to fragile ecosystems. Right now, a shaman might find a piece of vine and cut it off. But increasingly, people are coming in and cutting whole trees down," he said.
Considering the potential of synthetics as an alternative also presents an ecological benefit. But more than that, a synthesized DMT-ayahuasca derivative offers a promising treatment for conditions like PTSD. Companies are working to reduce the duration of its effects, making it more clinically viable. "A shorter duration means a doctor can watch a patient for an hour or two, potentially dealing with three or four patients a day. It could revolutionize mental healthcare," said Coape-Arnold.
Petri dishes testing the strength and viability of different spore strains help Cubed select the best ones to grow en masse.Sofia Misenheimer | MTL Blog
Mescaline, a compound similar to MDMA in its ability to produce a euphoric state, is another facet of Cubed Biotech's medical research. "Certain mescaline-bearing cacti like Peyote are off-limits due to religious protections, but others like Peruvian and San Pedro Torch, are fair game for us," said Coape-Arnold.
As ornamental plants in Canada, Cubed Biotech can acquire these cacti without permits and process the mescaline in a regulated setting. Although the company is not currently cultivating cacti due to their prolonged growth cycle, the company's mushroom production is in full swing. Coape-Arnold explained, "Mushrooms have a harvest time of about a month to six weeks, akin to the typical cannabis growth cycle. We initiate the process with spores, which are permissible in Canada, making the production quite efficient."
Deep within the confines of the lab, a spore from a strain of Psilocybe cubensis is introduced to a sterile petri dish. There, it germinates and starts to grow, feasting on a nutritious agar medium. From an invisible speck, an intricate network of mycelium begins to form beneath the surface.
"You see how it becomes ropey," said Eloïse Grondin-Bouchard, pointing toward one dish marked by a distinct radial, root-like pattern. "This is called rhizomorphic. It's a good indicator of the strain's ability to compete in the real world."
"When it's free from contamination, strong, and showcasing the right characteristics, we introduce it to grain for colonization," she explained.
As the head of Cubed Biotech's research and experimental development, Grondin-Bouchard guides the testing of different spore strains under various conditions. The aim is to identify weak performers and establish the most effective growing methods.
"We prefer to make all our mistakes at this stage," Coape-Arnold added. "It's much cheaper to discard a plate now than to invest in the full growing process only to discover the strain doesn't meet our standards."
Cubed Mycology Manager Eloïse Grondin-Bouchard demonstrates the tools used to propagate spores behind a fume hood.Sofia Misenheimer | MTL Blog
Using a sterile technique, the team transfers selected mycelium from a petri dish to nutrient-rich grain jars, which are then kept under precise temperature and light conditions. This initiates the colonization of the grain by the mycelium, marking the fungi's steady progress toward maturity.
To test efficacy with various strains, the team grows spores in different environments — some on hydrated oats, others in honey jars, and some in bioreactors. Once the grain is fully colonized, it's moved to a coconut-based substrate within a fruiting container, which mimics the mushroom's natural soil habitat.
By increasing humidity, adjusting light levels, and "stressing the fungi," pins emerge, which later develop into harvest-ready magic mushrooms, explained Grondin-Bouchard.
Bioreactors filled with spores in the Cubed mycology lab next to rows of grain jars and oat bags hosting mycelium spores.Sofia Misenheimer | MTL Blog
Once the mushrooms have matured, chemical extraction begins under the watchful eye of Operations Manager Ali Etemad. The fungi are dehydrated and ground down. The pulverized contents are then introduced to a special kind of alcohol and heat.
Etemad noted, "It's just about boiling and extracting the active compounds from the mushroom." The resulting vapors are carefully condensed and collected. In the final stage, the extraction undergoes further refinement in a rotary evaporator, which Etemad described as "the same concept as distillation, but more advanced". This meticulous process yields a potent, concentrated product ready for purification and then use.
As Cubed navigates this groundbreaking path, its efforts are drawing significant attention. "To date, we've raised $5.25 million — $3 million of that in about a month," Coape-Arnold revealed. The venture was largely bankrolled by Canadian investors, including 15 doctors. A refreshing change of pace, he noted, from the cautious embrace the medical community gave to the cannabis boom.
Coape-Arnold attributes the shift to a much quicker "zeitgeist change," bolstered by the popularity of flicks like Fantastic Fungi and How to Change Your Mind on Netflix.
As societal views on psychedelics shift, Coape-Arnold predicts that cultural acceptance is on the horizon, likely within the next six months as more clinical trials emerge. Already, a Health Canada Special Access Program introduced earlier this year is allowing psilocybin prescriptions for patients.
"A microdose is sub-perceptual. You're aware at the end of the day you've just reduced all your anxiety. It's beautiful. I see it as a long-term health and wellness play like CBD. It will still be supplied by licensed producers, but likely transferred out of the retail regulated regime and into pharmacies next year," said Coape-Arnold, who's all for expanding the horizons of therapeutic possibilities.
Navigating a psychedelic experience is not as simple as doling out a set dose, he said, advising a more guided approach. "You wouldn't want to just hand someone three and a half grams of mushrooms. Ideally, they should be with a friend, a guide, or a psychologist," he said.
The intention behind a trip, he insisted, makes a world of difference. A recreational shroom experience might offer visuals and laughter, but it often lacks the deeper psychological insight that can emerge in a more intentional setting. People can reap profound benefits on their own, he said, once they've safely and properly experienced a dose or two.
Someone wearing gloves holds a psilocybe mushroom.Courtesy of Cubed.
Coape-Arnold advocates for a measured, patient-centric approach toward wider legal access, emphasizing that the compelling stories of those finding relief through psychedelics carry weight.
"Silicon Valley CEOs are taking it. People with trauma are taking it. Military veterans are taking it. Everybody's taking it. A microdose is not about experiencing a trip, but about subtly reducing anxiety and achieving a state of wellness," he said.
As Cubed Biotech pushes forward, its vision extends beyond simple pharmacology. The company is harnessing the power of natural psychedelics, not just as substances, but as catalysts for change, to eliminate stigma and revolutionize mental health treatment.
The odyssey before Cubed Biotech isn't a fleeting trip — it's a calculated, determined exploration into the vast potential of psychedelics to improve lives. And, with every scientific stride, they may just rewire the neural pathways of our collective psyche and well-being.