Published on
August 23, 2021

Dr. Paul Van Slyke | Chief Scientific Officer, PharmaDrug

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Dr. Paul Van Slyke
Chief Scientific Officer

Dr. Van Slyke is an entrepreneur-scientist with 18 granted and filed patents, and most recently co-founder and former CSO of Vasomune, a clinical stage Canadian biotech company. Paul brings to PharmaDrug a breadth of experience in preclinical and IND-enabling activities. Having completed his PhD at the University of Toronto, Department of Medical Biophyics, Paul brings exercises a multidisciplinary approach to developing market ready solutions to foundational biological questions. Paul's previous research interests are broad and complementary to those of PharmaDrug; spanning a number of clinical indications including acute respiratory distress syndrome, acute kidney injury, vascular inflammatory disease, sepsis and oncology.

What made you personally excited about psychedelics?

If I am to be entirely honest, it was originally the fact that it was forbidden and slightly taboo. When regulatory bodies prohibit something, I think it is increasingly common for people to question the legitimacy of the claims being made; this combined with the fact that access to high-quality information is increasingly available to those that seek it out. As a scientist trained in receptor signalling, I became very interested in understanding the potential benefits of psychedelics for various neuropsychiatric indications. Over nearly two decades I’ve closely followed the evolving literature as pioneering groups like those at Johns Hopkins and Imperial College pushed the envelop ever closer to clinical applicability. At the same time, there has been an exciting and parallel convergence of public interest and regulatory evolution that has continued to increase the profile of psychedelics. 

What is the most common misconception about psychedelics?

Probably the most common misconceptions that I have heard over the years is that psychedelics are harmful and may lead to substance misuse/abuse. Formal studies and anecdotal reports suggest that this ‘misconception’ is perhaps not totally unfounded, but often significantly overstated. While generally considered quite safe from a physical perspective, psychedelics are powerful substances and people do occasionally report challenging experiences that can result in lingering psychological disruption; especially in those that have underlying mental illness. The fact that a powerful drug can provoke an undesirable side effect should not be surprising, nor has this fact limited the beneficial development and application of entire classes of therapeutics in the past. 

What psychedelic molecules is PharmaDrug investigating and for which indications?

Over the last several years many biotech and pharma companies have invested heavily in the development of psychedelic drugs to primarily address neuropsychiatric indications. At this point we feel that this space is starting to get quite crowded. As a small company PharmaDrug aims to innovate in key indications that fall outside of that space. For instance, we recently announced a formal collaboration with the Terasaki Research Institute to evaluate DMT (and other related, but undisclosed tryptamines) for the treatment of primary open angle glaucoma.  

From a therapeutic perspective, what do you find most interesting about DMT and it’s potential?

DMT has many fascinating attributes that make it particularly attractive from a development perspective. Among the common psychedelics currently being considered as therapeutic tools, DMT and its related family member 5 MeO-DMT are the only ones known to be produced endogenously. That specific enzymatic pathways to produce these neurotransmitters are in place in humans and are conserved in lower vertebrates suggests that there is an essential purpose for these molecules in the maintenance of normal, healthy functioning. Continued efforts aimed at understanding these endogenous pathways potentially affords us the opportunity to employ pharmacogenomic approaches to deliver DMT repletion to the right patients in the right tissue, at a necessary dose to re-establish optimal functioning. Supporting this foundational basic research with a view to future clinical translation is something that PharmaDrug continues to invest in. 

How will you leverage your previous experience in preclinical and clinical drug discovery at PharmaDrug?

Straddling the space that exists between basic research and clinical translation has provided me with a rich opportunity to ask questions, identify gaps and work collaboratively towards innovative solutions that improve health outcomes. Drug development is an enormous undertaking and honing one’s skillset while understanding their limitations has been an important realization for me. No one is good at all aspects of drug development and understanding the steps necessary to tap into a network of highly skilled individuals that share your passion and vision is critical for success. Too often great science dies on the vine because the activities necessary to move inventions to patients are either too expensive or too opaque. In my previous role as CSO of a start up biotech we were successful in taking a basic concept, raising significant capital, and transitioning it to a patented product that is now being evaluated in critically ill patients. I’ve found that the steps along the way are best accomplished by getting people excited about the work you are doing and by forming strong relationships in both the financial and biotech ecosystem.   

How will your partnership with the Terasaki Institute assist PharmaDrug in developing a novel ocular drug delivery platform focused on DMT?

The folks at Terasaki are world leaders in generating custom biomedical solutions for high unmet medical needs. I couldn’t have higher confidence in Ali Khademhosseini, the principal scientist and the rest of the team shepherding our development efforts forward. Dr. Khademhosseini, formerly a professor at UCLA and Harvard before taking on the CEO role at Terasaki Institute, brings a depth of experience that is unsurpassed. His previous track record of innovation in the biomaterial sciences (>650 peer-reviewed manuscripts) has led to him being recognized by Thomson Reuters annually for the last five years as one of the most influential minds in the world. Our ongoing collaboration with the Terasaki group provides us access to specialized expertise in the ophthalmology space, experience in navigating matters related to the use of controlled substances for research purposes and a highly motivated team of scientists that are well suited to execute on our early development goals. 

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

Simply put, I think over the next decade you will see that movements in the psychedelics space will transform the medical landscape; both as it relates to the treatment of neuropsychiatric and non-neuropsychiatric indications. It seems clear that after greater than 50 years of prohibition the genie has been let out of the bottle. Caution exercised at this point in the design of well controlled studies that add legitimacy to the early work currently underway will surely assist in broader adoption of these approaches.  

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

Accumulating evidence suggests that these medicines will provide significant benefit to broad groups of patients; and importantly, fewer side effects than many of the existing treatments. Innovation in the neuropsychiatric space in particular has been reasonably slow since the advent of SSRIs in the 1980s. Since then, there have been many ‘me too’ drugs approved, but high percentages of patients are resistant or show only partial benefit to existing therapies. As such, a more permissive regulatory environment for psychedelics will usher in new hope for patients that have not satisfactorily been treated for too long. At the same time, the ideologically negative stance of many is beginning to fade. Recent polls show that support for psychedelic medicine is continuing to grow. We are optimistic that this is the right time, and we are doing the right things with DMT to take advantage of this changing tide.