In this podcast interview, we speak with neuroscientist and physician Leanna J. Standish, ND, PhD, LAc, FABNO, about her naturopathic oncology research. Standish has been involved in original research at Bastyr University since 1987, where she continues to teach and serve patients. We discuss the research she's currently working on—the Canadian US Integrative Oncology Study (CUSIOS)—and its focus on understanding how integrative oncology care affects outcomes for people with certain advanced cancers. In addition, we discuss the use of psychedelic drugs like psilocybin in cancer care—especially for people who have a history of trauma.
About the Expert
Leanna J. Standish, ND, PhD, LAc, FABNO, is a neuroscientist and physician living in Seattle. She has faculty appointments in the University of Washington School of Medicine Radiology Department, the University of Washington School of Public Health, and Bastyr University. She is working toward obtaining approvals to conduct ayahuasca clinical studies in the United States. She uses functional magnetic brain imaging to study brain-to-brain communication and the ‘entangled minds’ hypothesis. As a physician she specializes in naturopathic oncology, with special interest in the treatment of stage 4 cancer.
Standish earned her PhD in neuroscience/biopsychology from the University of Massachusetts in 1978, her ND from Bastyr University in 1991, an MS in acupuncture and Oriental medicine from Bastyr University in 1994, and became board-certified in naturopathic oncology in 2006.
Tina Kaczor: Hello, I'm Tina Kaczor, Editor-in-Chief here at the Natural Medicine Journal. I'm talking today with Dr Leanna Standish about ongoing original research in naturopathic oncology. Dr Standish is a neuroscientist and naturopathic physician with a master's in acupuncture and Oriental medicine and board certification in naturopathic oncology. She's been involved in original research at Bastyr University since 1987, where she continues to teach and serve patients. Dr. Standish, thank you so much for joining me. I want to go-
Leanna Standish: Hi, can I just say hi to everybody and especially you, Dr Kazcor, and just express how delighted I am to talk to all of you.
Kaczor: Yes, and so yeah, it's very exciting to have you one on one to get to know a little bit of what's going on in the front lines of research specifically. What prompted this was your update at the recent oncology conference. The Oncology Association of Naturopathic Physicians had their annual conference in February where you spoke. I'd like you to kind of start at the beginning. What was really compelling is some of the research on both non-small and small cell lung cancer as well as breast cancer studies. So, if you could kind of update us about a little bit of what ... update us on what's going on with your research in those areas.
Standish: Yes. Well, since 2009 working at Bastyr University with Paul Anderson, we started collecting data on survival outcomes in our advanced cancer patients and have a big enough database that we can start summarizing survival outcomes, which is I think of great interest to both patients and their physicians. What we found, our first study was in breast cancer, stage 4 breast cancer, that our median overall survival in our patients, they were 54 consecutive women with breast cancer. The median overall survival is 47 months. When I first got those data, I was very upset because it means that half of my patients were dead at 47 months. But then I thought, well, how does that compare to other studies that were being published at the same time that we were doing our work? What we found is that the best study that we could find in terms of median overall survival in stage four breast cancer was an Abraxane trial that happened in the early part of the 2000s. Just getting some tea here, hold on.
That study showed a median overall survival of 36 months. So the conclusion to me was yeah, this is an uncontrolled study. The kinds of patients that we see are the kind of people that are very proactive. They may be survivors just in their very being, but in any sense that you can think about this, that those are pretty good results in advanced cancer. Then we did a similar study in advanced non-small cell lung cancer, and that was with 18 consecutive patients, stage 3 and 4, and the median overall survival there was 43 months. Then we surveyed the literature and did a systematic, I should say systematized review to find that the median overall survival for all the chemotherapy drug trials and even the new immunotherapies that were coming out in just the last say 5 years, the median overall survival of all those studies when averaged together was only 13.3 months. It's kind of astounding to me how poor results in advanced cancer continue to be.
That's the summary. Just one more thing I want to say is that this is why we started the Canadian and US study of integrative oncology outcomes. This is 12 clinics all over Canada and the United States that are doing what we call advanced naturopathic oncology, and we're tracking survival and treatment data from 400 people. That probably will be published, it will probably be at 2 years before that study is published.
Kaczor: Are there any intermediate points where you've looked at that data? Do we have any idea of what's gong on with that study?
Standish: Which study do you mean? CUSIOS?
Kaczor: Yeah, that last one you just mentioned, which I think you called-
Standish: Yeah, we called CUSIOS, so Canadian US Integrative Oncology Study. What we know is that we've been able to recruit. We're about 85% done recruiting the 400 patients. We have a good diversity of the patients that we recruited for, which was stage 4 breast cancer, stage 4 colorectal cancer, and stage 3 and 4 pancreatic cancer, and stage 3 and 4 ovarian cancer. We wanted to narrow our study to those 4 conditions. We're recruiting. We're able to collect death data, and the most exciting and problematic thing is what do you compare our naturopathic oncology survival data to? Here I've just talked about a breast cancer study, 53 women, their median overall survival is 47, but what does that mean? Compared to what?
Right now there is a tremendous amount of intellectual work going on at Bastyr University and also at Canadian College to figure out what the best statistical method is, and fortunately we've been able to collaborate with some very sophisticated big data scientist with statistical ability that have access to this marvelous database in Canada. We will be able to use the SEER database too, and what we're doing is trying to figure out how to match naturopathic oncology cancer patients to patients that are just like them in these registries and then watch them over time with the hard endpoint of date of death.
We're also of course very interested in quality of life. We're also interested of course in what therapies each patient got, not only what they were recommended, but also what therapies they received. For example we're tracking Dr Gurdev Parmar's clinic where they're doing locoregional hypothermia. Another clinic is using mistletoe therapy intensively. Another clinic, such as ours at the Ames Institute in Seattle, we're focusing now on the utilization of what's being called metabolic therapy, which is the idea of the cliché is starving cancer using FDA off label drugs that is all the rage these days, very interesting approach. We're using intravenous vitamin C along with chemotherapy. We've sort of abandoned the idea that as a monotherapy it does much. We're starting to explore the safe use of quercetin as a botanical medicine that really needs to be given intravenously to be bioavailable.
But I think the most important thing we're doing is taking seriously the idea that trauma, childhood trauma in particular, is a risk factor for development of cancer. And I'm referring of course to the famous ACEs study, Adverse Childhood Events study, that linked in a dose-dependent way the number of adverse childhood events like neglect, foster child, abandonment by parents, alcoholism, violence, etc., war, that the number of these events is correlated with the risk of cancer later in life. And so we at Ames Institute are saying well okay, if that is an important causal feature of why we get cancer, then let's get to that. We're using now psychedelic assisted psychotherapy to be able to do the deep work that is required to help people heal from posttraumatic stress disorder, which not only can come from childhood, but just the very experience of having cancer, being diagnosed with cancer, going through cancer treatment produces posttraumatic stress disorder.
What we're hoping is all these therapies combined are going to improve the median overall survival of our patients. That's what we're doing here in my clinic.
Kaczor: Tell me a little bit more about this. Is this low-dose psychedelics? I think we're talking about it here in Oregon from a state level. I think there's going to be actually some kind of referendum vote to see if we can legalize such things here, so I'm curious about this.
Standish: Yes. The initiative that will be happening in Oregon in 2020 is about permitting psychotherapists, certified licensed and fully trained psychotherapists, to utilize psilocybin in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder and also in end-of-life care. That's very exciting. But in the meantime, right now there are no legal psychedelic drugs available for physicians with 1 exception, and that is ketamine. Ketamine is a drug that comes from anesthesia. It's been very well studied as both an anesthetic, but in low doses, it produces a state of consciousness that some people would describe as psychedelic with a dissolution of the sense of self, a connection with higher realities, a connection with one's ancestry, an ability to do deep work in the presence of a physician and a nurse who are overseeing the treatment. What we've found is a 3-hour ketamine session that's led and facilitated in an excellent way can help enormously relieving the depression and the anxiety that is part of all of our lives, but especially if you've been diagnosed with cancer, and especially if you have the kind of trauma in your childhood that is a risk factor for cancer.
Kaczor: Is there already clinical data on the use of this?
Standish: On what? I'm sorry, clinical data on what?
Kaczor: On ketamine or psychedelics being used in this fashion.
Standish: No. What there is, this is translational science, and the reason I love naturopathic oncology is that we are people who take science and translate it into other domains of medicine. We know without a doubt now that the state of consciousness, emotional states and brain states associated with those emotional states, have direct effect on the autonomic nervous system, which has direct effects through a cascade of physiology and biochemistry that affects the behavior of cells in the tumor bed. And there's tons of work on that. Is there work on the use of psychedelics for healing cancer? No, but it will be coming, and I hope that we can show some leadership in that area here in Seattle because I think it's an extremely important area.
The reason psychedelics might be important too is that most of them have very strong serotonergic effects. What we've found in immunology is that the kinds of cells that are involved in the immunological response to cancer, T-cells in particular, are loaded with serotonin receptors. It is not a far stretch to imagine that one of our future immunotherapies will be psychedelics, and there's now kind of a rage around doing low dose psychedelics, all of which are considered by the drug enforcement agency to be controlled substances, but there's huge interest in this field. Most of us have probably seen Michael Pollan's new book How to Change Your Mind.
Kaczor: Yes, yeah. It's a fascinating read. It definitely had more data behind the use of it for emotional states than I had ever realized before reading that book. So let me ask you this because our listeners are often clinicians themselves. Sometimes they are the lay public. In any case, if people want to look further to see if they are appropriate to enter a study or they have patients that might be appropriate, because what I hear you saying is some of these tough-to-treat cancers, whether it's stage 4 disease or lung cancer in stages 3 and 4, they're tough to treat, and we all want to help our patients as best we can. So where would someone go to find you or one of the other 14 clinics involved in CUSIOS study? We'll put a link here with the podcast, but otherwise, where do we find you?
Standish: Oh, okay. Yes, please to go the Bastyr University website, and look at the research, and then look for CUSIOS [https://bastyr.edu/research/studies/canadianus-integrative-oncology-study-cusios-advanced-integrative-oncology]. Everything is updated there. It's also listed on the national NIH clinical trials .gov site, and all the clinics are listed there [https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT02494037].
Kaczor: That's great, and I think what we have is more of a full whole-systems research, outcomes-based research is what I hear you saying. All of these are taking into account large plants, not single agents, which is why we often have weak data when we use single agents in our medicine. Kudos for mastering the complexity of figuring out how to get this data going and inform us.
Standish: Yeah, I think that one of our fundamental hypotheses is that natural medicines, those that are known and those that are not known yet, have a potential when they're used in the correct sequence and at the right time and in the right patient who has the right genetics and the right epigenetics at the time that you see them, that our therapies have a chance of really extending high quality life and making cancer into what we hoped for AIDS in the old days as a chronic manageable condition. I think that that day is coming, and we're certainly not there yet. That's for sure.
Kaczor: Yeah, yeah. I'm excited because I think that we can track the data much better than we have been able to, so that's certainly helps our cause as well. I thank you for carving out some time in your day and speaking with us today and updating us on what's going on. It's all very exciting, and thank you for all of your ongoing work.
Standish: Okay, thank you, Tina. Thanks, everybody. See you soon.