We spoke to co-founder and CSO of Psilera Bioscience, Jackie von Salm. Psilera is a psychedelic-based biotech company with a research pipeline focused on developing proprietary neuromodulators which they hope will provide therapeutic benefit to cognitive, mood and substance use disorders. Jackie explained that Psilera – founded and owned by scientists – is conscious of the value in keeping the “bigger picture” in mind, maintaining a focus on transparency and education for both pharmaceutical and nutraceutical incarnations of psychedelic medicines.
We touched on a number of topics, including why synthesising psychoactive compounds may be a more reliable route to medical applications than deriving these agents ‘naturally’. Jackie and her co-founder Chris Witowski are well-positioned to contribute to this debate, having worked with formulations from both natural and synthetic resources during their time in the cannabis space. She was keen, however, to point out that Psilera plans to avoid the “quick-money tactics” that some have come to associate with cannabis products.
The interview closed with the Psilera co-founder explaining that she is most excited about the various biological and computational testing her company plans to undertake. Just yesterday the Florida-based company announced their plans to harness computational chemistry to assess the binding of its novel psychedelic analogues with serotonin receptors such as 5-HT2A and 5-HT2B receptors. The Company is set to begin pre-clinical studies in early 2021 on novel compounds derived from natural psychedelics, and plans to move to clinical studies later next year which will include novel delivery methods.
Psilocybin Alpha (PA): Was there a specific life event, or experience, that encouraged you to explore the potential of psychedelics for medicinal and therapeutic purposes?
Jackie von Salm (JvS): My entire life experience has brought me to this space. I grew up around many various forms of addiction and trauma, and my grandfather was a psychiatrist that often told me of how the universe was expanding into consciousness and that we had to rid ourselves of ego. I’ll say that my need to be in the mental health space hadn’t really hit me until I moved to Vancouver during my postdoctoral research. I saw a level of homelessness and drug use that is often hidden from society. Simultaneously, my father’s dementia worsened, and he was no longer self-sufficient. I moved back to Florida to help him and find any path I could into neurological drug discovery.
PA: In other interviews you have mentioned the importance of working directly with patients during your time researching Cannabis sativa. Why was working directly with patients so formative for you, and do you think it’s something that should be encouraged as an alternative to being a lab-bound scientist?
JvS: Absolutely, I dream of a day when scientists are not bound by four sterile walls, often with minimal windows and treated like the witch in the basement. Speaking with patients at dispensaries about which products helped them and why, or which products they think could use improvements and how, reminded me that our goals as scientists are often clouded by the drive for scientific perfection rather than what might be best for patients. It’s not the same when you’re removed from the human connection by looking at survey data or random data from sales and marketing that are not always focused on what’s best for patients.
PA: Could you give our audience a brief overview of Psilera?
JvS: Psilera’s focus is on the science, but I want to emphasize the importance of what we call emotionally intelligent science. We are scientist-founded and owned with nature as our foundation. This requires bringing every aspect of science, academia, industry and nature into our process, while staying mindful of the bigger picture every step of the way. Our focus is on ailments that target the mind and psyche such as addiction, mood disorders and neurodegenerative diseases, hence our goal of helping to create more mindful medicines.
PA: Psilera seems to emphasise the natural essence of psychoactive drugs. With this in mind, what’s your opinion on compounds and formulations derived synthetically?
JvS: Our mission statement is to be part of a new era in mindful medicine by reimagining psychoactive natural products as building blocks for the next generation of neurological therapeutics. It’s quite a mouthful, but what this means is that Psilera is also investigating synthetic compounds that use the natural psychoactive drug as a foundation. Natural compounds and extracts are important starting points, but they often fall short as regulated, consistent medicines for serious diseases and illnesses. I’d also like to note that pure compounds, whether isolated from nature or synthesized, are the same compounds, but treating millions or potentially billions of people with the same plant or extract is unlikely to be an environmentally sustainable option and does not respect those cultures that use the natural material for rituals and other religious practices. There will be patients that benefit from both, but right now our focus is more on the pharmaceutical route.
PA: You and your co-founder Chris Witowski have extensive experience in the cannabis industry. What lessons are you bringing from that experience to Psilera?
JvS: One of our motivations to start Psilera was to ensure research and patients were put before anecdotal, quick-money tactics often on full display with cannabis products. We also gained a lot of experience in making a medically-focused product line with formulations from both natural and synthetic resources. We have a rare opportunity to work with old chemistry that has enough data to be efficacious, and now we also have 21st century capabilities and lenses to see how we can bring them to their full potential. Due to regulatory constraints, we are starting with synthetic options, but planning to work with natural products in the future as well.
PA: What’s your research pipeline? Do you have (pre)clinical studies planned?
JvS: Yes, we are planning to start pre-clinical studies in early 2021 on new compounds derived from natural psychedelics, and by mid-to-late 2021 start clinical studies on a natural psychedelic with our new delivery methods. Our focus initially is research and development to make FDA-approved drugs for patients with severe conditions that require specialized attention, rather than what I would consider the natural product-based medicines. Those will have a lot of optimization and standardization before it is something patients with severe conditions can consistently depend on.
PA: The tension between the commercialisation of psychedelics and the broader sociohistoric context of such substances is an important topic: how do you, and Psilera, seek to bridge this divide?
JvS: I guess I should be clear that I do not see synthesizing psychoactive compounds and going through FDA-approval as “commercialization of psychedelics”. Commercializing a natural substance like putting mushrooms in candy bars, similar to what the cannabis industry has done with Cannabis sativa, is more along those lines, in my opinion. We hope that by staying as transparent as possible and making education a major focus, we’ll be able to help everyone understand the potential of these medicines in both a pharmaceutical and nutraceutical context. We’ve seen first hand what companies and people will do to get their hands on natural substances, and if we can find a more sustainable route beyond overharvesting them from the wild or cultivating them on large scale using huge amounts of resources and energy, we’re going to do it.
PA: How do your own IP portfolio ambitions figure into that debate?
JvS: We do not plan on commercializing natural substances, and our focus is research and development to better understand their potential as medicine. Our IP portfolio is about pure compounds and pure compound blends that are standardizable. Since we are mostly working with tryptamine compounds like psilocybin and DMT, they are very small and readily synthesized. Technology today has made it so that we can study extremely small quantities of natural material to understand their chemistry, and we plan to use this to its full potential.
PA: Finally, what are you most excited about for 2021?
JvS: I’m most excited about all the various biological and computational testing. This will be the moment that a lot of our chemistry is put to the test to verify that we’ve really made something special for human health. We have various new collaborations with different universities and government agencies doing brain-imaging, addiction and behavioral studies with rodents, and computational modelling in neuroreceptors. This will help us further understand how they’re affecting animals and humans on a biological and atomic level.