SYDNEY -- A notorious party drug could one day be prescribed to Australian patients suffering depression, with a multi-million dollar trial of ketamine's potential to treat mental illness to get underway.
A sedative and a painkiller, Ketamine is currently only available in Australia for use as a prescription anaesthetic under strict controls.
It's also used as a party drug for its hallucinogenic properties, but has demonstrated good short-term results for treating depression.
It's said to have a positive impact within hours, even on treatment-resistant patients.
On Monday, UNSW psychiatry professor Colleen Loo said a new trial of the drug's mental health treatment potential would take place thanks to a $2 million government grant.
A previous clinical trial into the drug's potential to treat depression had to be shut down due to a lack of funding.
Loo said one-in-three people suffering a major depression didn't respond to to traditional anti-depressant drugs.
“Our research has clearly shown the potential for ketamine to be an effective new treatment option for depression,” Loo said.
“We are aware that people have been accessing ketamine as an off-label depression treatment and this is a dangerous situation.
“Ketamine can have serious side effects and we do not yet have a clinical understanding of appropriate dosage level, method of administration, length of treatment, identification of patient suitability or long term safety profiles.”
She said the new trial would also enable researchers "to measure efficacy under different circumstances within a safe, clinical environment".
The announcement comes after a controversial Australian clinic was forced to close earlier in the year accused of selling injections of ketamine for $150.
Psychiatrists say the drug is only a short-term solution to depression, and the long-term safety of regular ketamine use has not been proven.