Published on
November 11, 2021

Daniel Cohen | CEO, Pharmadrug

People Mentioned
Daniel Cohen
Chief Executive Officer

What made you personally excited about psychedelics?

My personal interest in psychedelics is driven by a couple of points. Firstly, I am a believer in natural medicines. I think that there is a philosophical reason there that I don’t need to elaborate on. That doesn’t mean that I don’t respect scientific rigour. Quite the opposite. I think that many potential natural medicines deserve the research focus that may have eluded them in the past. This brings me to my second point. Psychedelics have been ignored for far too long. I think the next decade is going to bring a lot of advancement in the understanding of these drugs. This is a process I wanted to be part of.

What is the most common misconception you hear about psychedelics?

Misconceptions come at different levels. There are many people out there that see psychedelics as a class of hard recreational drugs that are now catching the next wave in the adult use legalization movement. There may be some truth to it, but there is some great anecdotal evidence and early scientific research that is suggesting a real potential for treatment of psychological conditions. If we move into the group of people who believe in the neuropsychiatric potential of the drugs, then I would say that most common misconception is that it’s the only true potential application for the class of drugs. Instead of starting at the end and working backwards, a lot of work needs to be done upfront to better understand the biochemistry of psychedelics and their role in human physiology. I do believe it’s important to do the work to see if psilocybin can have a positive impact on treating depression or PTSD. However, we also need to understand why. What is the mechanism of action? Is the potential for psychedelics strictly for neuropsychiatric indications? We at PharmaDrug don’t think so. 

Can you share what you think PharmaDrug’s advantages are and what you guys are building in the psychedelic medicines space?

I think the advantage we have is that we are starting with basic science. One of our greatest assets is our Chief Scientific Officer, Dr. Paul Van Slyke. Dr. Van Slyke brings a full career in lab research and drug development, combined with a lifetime love of all types of mushrooms. He has also been a keen follower of academic psychedelic research since Roland Griffith put out his first paper in the 90’s. Additionally, we have created a diverse group of collaborators who are driven by foundational research, but from different viewpoints. This includes the team at Johns Hopkins as well as Dr. Jimo Borjigin at the University of Michigan and Dr. Stephen Barker, professor emeritus, Louisiana State University.  

Why did you choose to focus on using DMT to treat glaucoma? What therapeutic potential do you see it having?

Our focus on using DMT to treat Glaucoma is a product of our fundamental strategy in psychedelics biotech research. Firstly, we wanted to focus on DMT because it remains relatively understudied and appears to be an important endogenous neurotransmitter. Secondly, we wanted to base our strategy on fundamental research. That means starting at the beginning and not the end. Thirdly, we wanted to focus on non-neuropsychiatric indications. To simplify the story, we went in search of receptor pathways that both display evidence of being sensitive to DMT and that have the potential to treat a current unmet need. That led us to Glaucoma.  

We expressed on several occasions that we were searching for a commercial strategy based what we termed as the “holy trinity”. We feel that a successful development program in psychedelics must consist of a unique indication, a unique formulation and a unique delivery technology. Glaucoma therapies and medications do exist, but they don’t necessarily meet all patient needs. Many people still go blind from Glaucoma. Current drugs often come in the form of eye drops. Some cause reactions. Moreover, many users often forget to put their drops in every day. Another large problem is also that drops don’t get administered when a sufferer is sleeping. PharmaDrug wants to find the right DMT formulation or analogue molecule that will have the marked benefit, with the least irritation, combined with the highest potency and duration. Once that is established, the team (PharmaDrug and the Terasaki Institute for Biomedical Innovation) will develop a prototype delivery mechanism that will go in the eye for a constant and sustained delivery of the medicine.

Can you share more about your Clinical Trial Agreement with The Johns Hopkins University? What excites you the most about this collaboration?

The upcoming clinical trial with Johns Hopkins University is a perfect example of the type of foundational research I mentioned previously. The study will compare the impact of DMT and another undisclosed psychedelic drug in healthy humans. Each subject will be given both DMT and the other drug at different times and in different doses. Following each administration, the patient will be monitored by way of standardized psychological assessments. The group at JHU will also use state of the art functional brain imaging techniques to examine the differential physiological impact of these agents (and doses) on the volunteers. Given that the trial will be on healthy humans, we won’t need to assess its specific potential therapeutic impact, but rather will be able to assess how two psychedelic drugs that may trigger different receptor pathways at several different doses. This is the type of mechanistic data that I think is extremely important in truly understanding the therapeutic potential of psychedelics overall.

What excited me about the trial is the nature of the collaboration. I think there is often a synergy that arises from an analysis performed by contributors with differing views or backgrounds. The people running the trial at Johns Hopkins come from a group that pioneered the current re-emergence of academic research in psychedelics and their impact on the mind and consciousness. On the other hand, PharmaDrug is a biotech company that is interested the drug’s potential to treat non neuropsychiatric indications. Having the two groups be able to see the data and analyze it separately and together can yield some interesting perspectives.

What do you see the pathway being for psychedelics to becoming more medically accepted and accessible?

I think it will come from both ends. We need more scientific research and well designed clinical trials that result in regulatory frameworks and approval. I think we will also see some jurisdictions that relax their laws and even legalize adult use. Like with cannabis, I think that can go a long way to change society’s perception on psychedelics. That being said, I do think that cannabis and psychedelics are different. Cannabis is more benign. It was able to start with a relaxation of the laws and allowing both recreational use and even self-medication. I don’t personally think you need a doctor’s guidance in using a balanced oil to help you go to sleep. Deep scientific research, molecule reformulation and clinical trials are largely a second stage for cannabis. Psychedelics are a more challenging class of drugs to roll out. I don’t see it as so black and white. I’m not against responsible use of psychedelics for microdosing, but in general, I think the psychedelic movement, like biotech in general, should be led in the clinic. 

What do you see the future of psychedelic medicines being and what will their impact be on healthcare as a whole?

I really think it’s too early to tell. It’s a real class of medicine that suffers a serious deficiency of research on a relative basis. We all know the reasons for that and I don’t need to go into it. The good news is that the work has begun. The bad news is that it’s not a quick fix. I am confident that access will be improved, albeit with a great variance across legal jurisdictions. I am also confident that we will eventually see regulatory approval of reformulations for specific indications. We are merely in the first or second inning.

What do you believe is the most important thing for people to understand about the future of psychedelics as medicine?

That it’s real. That there is scientific merit to the work being done. That it will take time.