As a social worker with 30 years' experience working in hospice care, Christina Ingenito expected to face death gracefully when her time came. But when a breast cancer diagnosis at 59 left this once ebullient woman "severely clinically depressed" — her words — she turned to an unusual research project for help.
In 2016, Ingenito became one of 18 subjects in the first-ever FDA-cleared study to explore the therapeutic effects of MDMA — commonly known as ecstasy — on people with life-threatening illnesses who are suffering from depression. After four standard (i.e., sober) therapy sessions with the two psychologists leading the study, Ingenito embarked on three "medicine journeys," as she calls them: marathon eight-hour therapy sessions fueled by capsules of MDMA.
"Incredible" is how she describes the experience now. "From the very first moment that I felt the medicine in my body, it radically transformed all the trauma that I had been holding, not only from the diagnosis but previously from my life as well. My anxiety is gone; the depression is gone; my life force is back." Today she is free from both cancer and depression.
Depression now affects 16 million Americans and 350 million adults worldwide, according to the NIMH, making it one of the most common disabilities in the world. But even with more than 20 antidepressants approved by the FDA over the past 60 years, many people still struggle with the condition: One-third of Americans simply don't respond to any of the currently available medicines, studies say, and there hasn't been a significant breakthrough in decades. As the years of desperation mount, doctors are finding themselves turning to new and unexpected sources for the next big antidepression drug.
Though there is no shortage of antidepression drugs currently available, analysts believe there is still plenty of opportunity in the nearly $17 billion global market.