The Aquilino Cancer Center is a specialist center at Adventist Healthcare Shady Grove Medical Center in Maryland, US. We have provided support, training and funding for their investigator-initiated study using our COMP360 psilocybin therapy in cancer patients with depression, as well as collaborating with the team on its Center for Healing which opened in September 2020.
Here we speak to Principal Investigator of the study, Dr Manish Agrawal, to learn more about the Cancer Center and their research.
Tell us about the Aquilino Cancer Center
The Aquilino Cancer Center is a state-of-the-art outpatient community cancer center in Rockville, Maryland (a suburb of Washington DC). The Aquilino Cancer Center promotes physical, mental and spiritual healing for people at all stages of their cancer journey.
Cancer care is not just about treating cancer with chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy, but really whole person healing. Thanks to our collaboration with COMPASS, we recently opened the Bill Richards Center for Healing which is focused entirely on emotional support and wellbeing for patients and their families. Our clinical trial for psilocybin therapy also takes place here.
Can you describe the Bill Richards Center for Healing?
It’s a beautiful, purpose-built space which we created to help patients and their family members deal with the psychological impact of cancer. It’s an integral part of their cancer care here at Aquilino, not just an optional add-on.
A truly creative effort, the center came to be through the collaboration of Adventist Healthcare, COMPASS Pathways, Gensler Architecture, Maryland Oncology Haematology and Deerfield Construction. This collaboration managed to design, finance and build the center within a year, without letting COVID halt the progress. The aim was to create a center that would meet today’s rigorous standards but be a place of learning for the future.
When considering the design of the center we looked beyond traditional medical ideas to innovations found in other industries, such as hospitality and leisure, that could combine to create a new concept of what care could look like for people. Likewise, this therapy is still in a trial phase, and may need to evolve to ensure it operates safely and efficiently. The center needed design flexibility to accommodate new refinements and further research.
The end result is a center that is a tranquil space with soft lighting, curved walls and light wood, overlooking a healing garden. Patients and staff alike tend to take a deep intake of breath when they first walk in. The center has a calming effect that is just not found amidst the hustle and bustle of a busy hospital. It makes patients feel really valued and cared for.
What is your background, how did you get here?
I initially considered Philosophy at college, but then studied Electrical Engineering which I didn’t enjoy at all. It made me realise how much I wanted to work with people and this brought me to Medicine.
I did my residency in Internal Medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center and managed to take a Master’s in Philosophy at the same time. I followed this with a Fellowship at The National Institute of Health in Oncology, Early Drug Development and Ethics. After being in faculty for a couple of years I missed being with patients and delivering care, which is when I came into practice at Aquilino.
I came to realise that there was a huge unmet need. While I could take good care of cancer patients by treating their cancer, there was a great deal of suffering that I wasn’t able to help heal. That’s what drew me to research the potential of psilocybin therapy in cancer.
What are you hoping to achieve with this psilocybin therapy trial?
When I looked at the early small trials of psilocybin therapy, the data were compelling. As an oncologist I thought that there could be a place for this treatment outside of specialist psychiatric centres and in the places where patients were receiving their care. I wanted to investigate its potential, with a view to being able to offer my patients more complete cancer care.
We designed the trial to allow earlier stage cancer patients with all kinds of cancer to participate. This was an intentional choice as previous trials had focused on patients with advanced or terminal cancer. Certainly, those patients suffer because they are grappling with death, but there are a lot of people who are living with cancer or who are cured and surviving with cancer but have emotional distress that is not being addressed.
This study is also different from others in psilocybin therapy because we are looking at simultaneous administration, with one-to-one support, in a cancer patient population. We are also doing group preparation and group integration. The group process often has an impact. Patients hearing each other’s stories can begin to care for each other and realise they’re not alone. That in itself can be a very healing and therapeutic process. We’re seeing that going through the psilocybin experience together bonds them even more and extends this caring in a way you don’t normally see.
Our vision is a world of mental wellbeing, what would this mean in the world of cancer care?
In order to have good cancer care you need to take care of the mental wellbeing of cancer patients. Too often patients report that they’re treated and even cured of their cancer but emotionally they haven’t been able to assimilate back into life. Cancer changes the course of patients’ lives and that has an impact on their mental health.
We need to take the stigma away from mental health. Often patients will say ‘I’m fine, I’m not depressed’ and I have to remind them that they have cancer, I’ve given them poisonous drugs, they’ve lost function and that it’s normal to not be fine. I have to re-enforce the notion that even healthy people seek help. Removing the stigma around mental health will improve the quality of life of cancer patients as much as anything else.
Click here to learn more about the Shady Grove Adventist Aquilino Cancer Center