UNMC Department of Psychiatry Research Director Soonjo Hwang’s expertise in neuroimagine has made him a sought-after partner for other departments and institutions. His work in the default mode network came to the attention of UNMC Associate Professor and Director of Inpatient Palliative Medicine at the Omaha VA, Lou Lukas, MD, in 2020 and a collaboration was born.
Dr. Lukas is leading a study using a psychedelic agent for the alleviation of distress in adults with pancreatobiliary cancers, and is joined by UNMC Internal Medicine Assistant Professor and Buffett Cancer Center oncologist Kelsey Klute, MD, University of Nebraska Lincoln Professor Jody Kellas, PhD, and Hwang, MD, in the project. The oncology and palliative care teams have experience with patients with cancers of the pancreas and gallbladder, which have particularly poor prognoses and are associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety than other cancers.
“The project is important because people with cancer often have significant emotional and psychological distress that is challenging to treat with current protocols,” says Dr. Lukas. “New work with psychedelic agents combined with supportive counseling shows promise for helping people suffering from the distress of cancer, depression, and addictive disorders.”
Lukas brings unique and extensive experience to the project. Prior to her return to Omaha, she worked with the group at John Hopkins who pioneered the resurgence of research in psychedelics. Dr. Lukas has since founded the Heartland Palliadelic Research Group which is interested in exploring these modalities.
“We reached out to Dr. Hwang to collaborate with the neuroimaging section of the trial and have since found several people in the department who are quite interested in this growing field of medicine,” Lukas says. Ji-woo Suk, PhD, post-doctoral researcher, is sharing her expertise in fMRI with the study team, and Brigette Vaughan, MSN, APRN, Lead Research Coordinator, is participating in the palliadelic guide training which includes providers from UNMC, the VA, and the community, and also provides some psychiatry guidance as they prepare for regulatory submission.
“The combination of plant medicine and a guided therapeutic element is a novel approach to the alleviation of distress,” Vaughan said.
“We’re also studying how the families of people who try this treatment communicate and cope with the illness, and how patients make decisions and utilize anti-cancer treatment,” Dr. Lukas adds. “There is hope that we are able to offer a fast-acting treatment that helps [patients] relieve some of their distress and live more fully for whatever time they have available.”