A controversial commercial chain of depression clinics offering injections of the party drug ketamine claim they have been forced to close down due to negative publicity. Aura Medical Corporation is being investigated by the health watchdog after the ABC revealed patients were being given vials of the Schedule 8 drug to inject at home, and the company had links to notorious erectile dysfunction clinic Advanced Medical Institute (AMI Direct).
Ketamine is available in Australia for use as a prescription anaesthetic under strict controls, but is not approved for depression treatment despite success in clinical trials. The closure of the clinics has left dozens of mentally ill patients without access to the drug that has been hailed as a "miracle cure."
Aura Medical had been offering injections of the drug for around $150 to $200 since last year, advertised on TV and radio as a "new alternative" for those with treatment-resistant depression. Patient Peter Riley, who has struggled with depression for years, said he was devastated to hear the drug would no longer be available.
"Ketamine has changed my life out of all sight, I've tried to commit suicide three times, I've been on eight different types of antidepressant," he said. "When I went for the first appointment with Aura Medical and had my ketamine injection I felt better the next day, [and] after I had been going for six weeks I felt amazing. My appointments have been cancelled ... they said that they do not have a doctor that is prepared to administer the preparations."
Former Aura Medical Melbourne general practitioner Dr Graham Barrett was banned from prescribing ketamine last month by the Australian Health Practitioners Regulation Agency (AHPRA) as part of an ongoing investigation.
Aura's ketamine program 'highly inappropriate'
The use of ketamine by commercial clinics in what is known as "off-label" prescribing has been condemned by psychiatrists and mental health advocates who say the long-term effects of regularly using the drug are unknown. University of New South Wales psychiatry school head Professor Philip Mitchell welcomed the news of the closure.
"Certainly it's not at all appropriate for it to be offered through a group like Aura, so I'm pleased to hear that service has been withdrawn," he said. There's been a very strong feeling that the ketamine program being offered by Aura is highly inappropriate. In Australia and in every other country around the world, ketamine is not approved by regulatory bodies for use in depression."
Professor Mitchell said medical professionals also have an obligation to ensure mentally ill patients are being supported.
"If someone is being offered care and that's withdrawn, as in the example of the Aura situation, there's an obligation for the clinician to ensure the patient is under ongoing care and that should have been organised."
Patients 'upset and crying' upon hearing treatment not available
Aura Medical Sydney patient Sarah, who does not want to use her real name, said her ketamine treatment had been highly successful.
"I think it's possible that it is a miracle treatment, my sense is that it is the most complete and least intrusive depression option that I have encountered," she said. "I had one appointment left and they rang me and said we can't help and we have to shut down because of the negative publicity. I don't understand, they give people (prescription sedative) valium and the [ketamine] experience is no more powerful than a valium so I don't understand why there is such an outcry about this, it seems to me that it is misplaced and misinformed."
Professor Mitchell said he was hoping tightly controlled clinical trials at research facilities like the Black Dog Institute would answer the questions still surrounding ketamine treatment for depression.
"It's very exciting and promising research treatment and in a controlled research environment it's appropriate," he said. I think there's the possibility that this controversy and debacle with ketamine through Aura may tarnish the reputation as a promising future treatment. I think we've got to look beyond that unfortunate experience with Aura because this is really a treatment that may potentially revolutionise or at least enhance what we can offer patients with depression."
Aura Medical's director Debbie Samuel refused to be interviewed but said patients at the clinic were "upset and crying" after being told the treatment was no longer available.
By Elise Worthington - ABC News.au/July 13, 2015