The University of Wisconsin School of Pharmacy will launch a new Master of Science program focusing on the study of psychoactive pharmaceuticals in the upcoming fall 2021 semester.
According to Director of the Psychoactive Pharmaceutical Investigation program and Assistant Director in the School of Pharmacy Professor Cody Wenthur, the program is designed to train students to fill emerging roles in the research and implementation of psychedelic and cannabinoid neuropharmacology.
The PPI program will be a named option under the Master of Science in Pharmaceutical Sciences degree, with a capstone certificate also available, Wenthur said.
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The program’s curriculum contains coursework in the areas of pharmacology, medicinal chemistry, pharmacokinetics — the way drugs move through the human body — and statistics, with humanities courses focused on the history of psychoactive drugs, Wenthur said.
Professor Eric Buxton works in the division of Pharmacy Professional Development within the School of Pharmacy and helped with the development of the PPI program. Buxton said the curriculum was developed based on feedback from professors and outside partners on what skills and topics would be important for finding employment.
“We reached out to individuals not only in the School of Pharmacy where the program is housed, but also professors across campus who are working on different scholarly avenues related to psychedelic administration,” Wenthur said.
Designing a curriculum that would teach the skills necessary to succeed in the job environment was the first step in developing the novel PPI program, Wenthur said.
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Once syllabi and faculty members were identified, the courses and program had to be approved by the university, Buxton said. Business plays a large factor in this — for a program to be approved it must be distinguishable from other programs on campus and have an identifiable job field for graduates to enter.
Buxton said identifying this job field for the PPI program was more complicated than usual, since there is not a traditional market available for psychoactive drugs.
“There really isn’t an official market — a lot of these markets are coming because of legalization taking place of various drugs across different states,” Buxton said.
The Division of Continuing Studies at UW assisted in identifying these markets and with getting the PPI program approved by UW, Buxton said. In addition, the division is assisting with the development of the program’s courses.
The Psychoactive Pharmaceutical Investigation program is the second named option under the Pharmaceutical Sciences Master’s degree to be developed in the last two years. The first, the Applied Drug Development program, was developed and directed by Buxton and welcomed its first cohort of students this year.
Wenthur said the successful launch of the Applied Drug Development program helped pave the way for the PPI program to be developed a year later. A growing industry of psychedelic and cannabinoid neuropharmacology also prompted the program’s creation, Wenthur said. UW has been involved in psychoactive substance research for over a decade, which was also a factor.
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“Interest in this area certainly is growing, as well as the recognition of the potential therapeutic benefits by entities like the FDA,” Wenthur said. “This promise has led there to be a great deal of interest and investment from the pharmaceutical industry.”
Wenthur said a recent breakthrough in the industry came when MDMA and psilocybin were granted therapy designation and are now undergoing clinical trials. Such developments have led to increasing job opportunities in the field of psychoactive substance research and implementation.
“Startup companies, biotechs and other implementation companies need well-trained employees and we thought we had the expertise to deliver those,” Wenthur said.
Buxton said the concept of a Psychoactive Pharmaceutical Investigation program is not only new to UW but to the country as a whole.
“In terms of a master’s program that is in this space of cannabis and psychoactive substances as a whole, there is nothing like this anywhere,” Buxton said. “And that was exciting for us because it was a chance for us to be first in the world with something like this.”
Wenthur said the coursework is the distinguishing factor of the program, given its unique variety of courses.
Another distinct aspect of the PPI program is it can be completed entirely online, with no need to be in the Madison area, Buxton said. Every course will be available online and has been designed specifically to be delivered online.
“The advantage we felt and is still true, is the student doesn’t have to be in Madison,” Buxton said. “The student can be anywhere in the world for that matter.”
One potential disadvantage to an entirely online program is the inability to conduct laboratory work, Buxton said. To mitigate this, the PPI program will offer several options for students in Madison to conduct research in an in-person setting if they choose. Buxton said since hands-on skills are important to employers in a laboratory setting, the program made the opportunity to develop those skills available but not mandatory.
Wenthur said a goal of the PPI program is to help contribute to central nervous system research, an industry that has been primarily left to academic centers and biotechnology start-ups to develop.
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“Ultimately we would hope to support the regrowth of that industry by delivering talented and well-educated rigorous scientists,” Wenthur said.
The program may have societal implications as well. The stigma surrounding some psychoactive substances and cannabis has led to a lack of accredited information in the field, Buxton explained.
“What we are trying to do is provide a legitimate platform for people to study and then take what they’re learning and apply it for better clinical outcomes and making the world a better place,” Buxton said. “We hope that this new degree will spawn a lot of discussion and also new research and better clinical outcomes as more is learned about these psychoactive substances.”
Wenthur said the need for psychoactive substance research is substantial and improved therapeutics in psychiatry are necessary to address the trend of worsening mental health occurring across the United States.