The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, is a branch of the U.S. Department of Defense. A Cold War-era legacy, it was established in 1958 as the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) after the Soviet Union beat the U.S. into space with its successful launch of the Sputnik satellite. DARPA’s mission is to support national security by creating breakthrough technologies. 

DARPA’s LinkedIn states, “The Agency explicitly reaches for transformational change instead of incremental advances.” Central to the agency’s success in this goal is its collaboration with an interdisciplinary “ecosystem” of partners in academia, industry, the private sector, government, the public, and the media. 

The Biological Technologies Office, one of six program offices at DARPA, houses the Focused Pharma program. Launched in Fall 2019, Focused Pharma is managed by Dr. Tristan McClure-Begley.This initiative’s purpose is to develop new therapeutics that target a variety of neuropsychiatric conditions such as PTSD, depression, addiction, and suicidality — mental health conditions to which active and veteran military members are disproportionately vulnerable.  Through the program, DARPA granted the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine $26.9 million to help develop improved psychedelic-based medicines for this population. Psychedelic Science Review wrote about the agreement upon its announcement in June 2020. In a Forbes article by Will Yakowicz about the project, McClure-Begley stated,

The rate of evacuation from active duty military deployment due to acute mental condition dwarfs every other reason for evacuation.

This work at UNC-CH is led by molecular pharmacologist Dr. Bryan Roth and his team at the Roth Lab. Their research is aimed at increasing the efficacy while lowering the side effects — including hallucinogenic effects — of psychiatric drugs. To do so, the Lab is attempting to stabilize G-protein coupled receptors (GCPRs) to facilitate more selective neurotransmitter signaling. Whether or not a hallucinogenic “trip” experience is essential for the therapeutic effects entities like DARPA are after remains controversial. McClure-Begley told Yakowicz that hallucinogenic effects are “intolerable, deleterious,” and –less disputed in the discourse around psychedelics–not well-suited for every individual. 

In a press release from the university, Dr. Roth stated, “Designing drugs to stabilize these specific cell-signaling complexes represents a ‘grand challenge’ for neuropsychiatric drug discovery, as there are currently no FDA-approved medications with the desired signaling profiles. We will take advantage of our recent innovations in GPCR structural determination to stabilize specific serotonin receptors and identify tens to hundreds of thousands of new candidates for developing better medications.”