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The San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center is administering ketamine to veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
Tobias Marton, the director of the ketamine infusion program at the center, said that since the program first launched two years ago, they have treated about 40 patients who had virtually exhausted all other options.
“They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do and they remain with very severe symptoms and with a poor or impaired quality of life,” he said. “Despite (past treatments), there remains a high risk of suicide (with some veterans).”
While it was not clear where the 40 patients are from, the option is something that is available to Humboldt County veterans who are suffering from PTSD or depression.
Marton said that in general, about a third of people diagnosed with depression don’t respond to first, second and third lines of treatment.
In contrast, ketamine infusion has yielded “impressive outcomes.”
Many people know of ketamine as a party drug, often referred to as Special K, but it is mainly used medically for anesthesia or pain treatment.
Miracle of medicine
“We know ketamine has rapid and powerful anti-suicide properties,” he said. “To have another tool, a potentially powerful tool to have an impact on suicide rates is really exciting.”
While Marton is proceeding with “cautious optimism,” Boris Nikolov, the CEO of Neurosciences Medical Clinic in Miami, Florida, which has a ketamine clinic, believes the application might be a medical breakthrough.
“It’s one of the greatest discoveries in the field of depression,” he said. “This is one of the miracles in medicine.”
Nikolov’s clinic has treated 120 patients with ketamine, including his wife who has PTSD as a result of severe child abuse.
“Ketamine really helped her,” he said. “That was a really big part of her recovery.”
Nikolov said most medicines that treat depression take from two to four weeks to start working. Ketamine begins working within hours after it is administered, a process which usually involves an IV infusion over the course of about an hour.
“What’s most important is the strong and fast effect of ketamine in patients who are very seriously depressed, or want to hurt themselves,” he said. “When they finish treatment, they’re totally different people. There is no other medication that does that.”
Brad Burge, the director of strategic communication at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, said there has been “an explosion of treatment that’s outpaced research.”
“It means that people are going to have another option, an alternative to conventional medications,” he said.
According to Burge, MAPS believes the best form of ketamine infusion involves pairing with other forms of psychotherapy such as group or individual counseling.
While ketamine is an FDA-approved drug which has been used as an anesthetic as well as a pain reliever, it isn’t officially sanctioned by the FDA to be used for treating mental health disorders. However, Marton said that ketamine has been administered in this fashion for over 18 years now.
A company is currently in the process of trying to get an intranasal product approved by the FDA which would administer ketamine through the nasal passage, according to Marton. He expects the FDA’s decision to be announced sometime around March 2019.
If the product is approved, he said, VA clinics in rural communities like the one in Eureka would likely be able to start offering ketamine treatments as well.
For now, only the location in San Francisco is able to offer the treatment, but Marton said anyone within their service realm, which includes Humboldt County, is invited to consult with the VA about seeking treatment.
“We want to be as thoughtful as we can,” he said. “As we understand more about it … (we) might be able to start helping people who we haven’t been able to help despite throwing everything we have at them.”