Published on
September 17, 2020

Gary Leong | Chief Scientific Officer, HAVN Life Sciences

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Gary Leong
Chief Scientific Officer
Gary Leong is the Chief Scientific Officer at HAVN Life Sciences. He was the former Chief Scientific Officer at Aphria Inc. where he established and oversaw the Quality Assurance, Quality Control, Regulatory Affairs & Research and Development functions.

You have worked in pharmaceuticals and medical cannabis previously. What got you excited about the psychedelic opportunity?

My interest stems, not specifically in psychedelics but rather in psychedelics from natural compounds. Throughout my career, I’ve held a fascination for natural materials and their relationship with people. My interest in psychedelics is an extension of my interest in plants and plant chemistry and their relationship to us, our bodies and the underlying biochemical mechanisms that churn within.

It never ceases to amaze me how many times we discover a compound or a mixture of compounds within plants that have a profound effect on us humans. Not to get all metaphysical, but It only goes to show how connected everyone and everything in this world is; not only in the physical sense, but on the molecular level.  I think humans have always known this and we are just rediscovering and reconfirming this with our modern scientific tools and technology.

From a science perspective, what do you find most interesting about psychedelic derived medicines and their potential?

Aside from the academic chemical mysteries that psychedelic plants hold, the prospects of searching for effective, safe and natural remedies to address mental wellness issues is very compelling.  I’m not sure if mental issues are more prevalent today or if we are just more aware and more receptive in acknowledging it, but regardless, there seems to be a rising crisis with these issues.  We see it in our health costs and; most poignantly in social indicators such as the opiate crisis.

What is your current focus when it comes to the projects you are leading at Havn Life Sciences?

Two complementary focuses. The first is getting the foundational science done on the psychedelic plants our science team has identified. Before we can get to studying the clinical utilities of these materials, we need to fully characterize and understand what they are and what within these plants makes them do what they do. Havn Life is building our lab at the South Campus at The University of British Columbia and setting up some of the top scientific minds, in my opinion, to do the work.

My primary focus is on developing Natural Health Products for Havn Retail that build on and complement the psychoactive work being done by our Havn Labs division. We are seeing links on where and how the psychoactive compounds within the psychedelic plants, with several other plants, herbs and supplements used traditionally to address cognitive and emotional ailments.  Although not as potent, modern science is confirming that these alternative compounds and natural health products can activate and support the same biochemical pathways as the psychedelic plants we are studying.

Can you talk about the lab you are in the process of building and what it will enable you to do?

The lab will be a state-of-the-art facility that will be used to do the foundational work, the first seeking out which plants have psychedelic properties and characterizing these properties. From that we will isolate the specific compound or compounds within each plant. The library of the compounds will give clinical researchers a reliable source of material to further their research.

We have the ability to expand our footprint as our needs grow, including the opportunity to create a manufacturing facility on site. We are also situated in close proximity to other individuals in the scientific community.

What are some of the challenges in doing research around psychedelics right now? How do you plan to overcome those?

Odd as it sounds, I don’t see any major hurdles from the scientific and technical sense. We live in an amazing time where we have some very powerful analytical and computational tools available to our scientist and researchers

In my opinion the major challenge not for Havn Life specifically, but for the industry in general has been the regulatory barriers that restrict the research into psychedelic agents and the natural material from which they are sourced. Frankly, many researchers can’t be bothered in navigating the regulatory hoops needed to conduct their research, but this has not deterred Havn Life. Determination and persistence are hallmarks to our team and we are at a stage where we can earnestly begin our work.

I am seeing a shift in the legislative and societal attitudes  with psychedelics in Canada.  There is a coalescing of the scientific understanding of the brain and brain chemistry with a greater awareness of mental health and the social cost of not addressing mental health issues.  Patients and health care professionals are looking for viable, evidence-based solutions.  I think governments are listening and taking down some of the barriers to at least allow the investigation of the psychedelic alternative. Hopefully this will continue because research is key.

HAVN is also working on wellness products from non psychedelic, functional mushrooms. What are some of the health benefits there and what does the science say, from your perspective?

As we are diving into our investigation of psychedelics and their biochemical effects on brain functions and brain health, we are seeing that many of the pathways activated by the components within psychedelic plants are the same ones affected by many other traditionally used natural health products. At the same time we are realizing that many chronic conditions are the symptomatic manifestation of multi-faceted system imbalances. For example, the symptomatic condition of stress or anxiety can be linked to an imbalance in sleep pathways that may be the result of biochemical imbalances in dopamine and serotonin which may in turn can be linked to digestive issues linked to imbalances within the gut microflora.  Stress and anxiety is the result of cascading imbalances within multiple related systems within the body.

Havn Life has the opportunity to leverage our scientific expertise to develop and deliver effective and safe wellness products. These products will be supported with the latest scientific evidence and the most stringent quality and manufacturing standards.  

What can we expect to see Havn Life develop and validate from a science perspective in the short term?

Research based on sound scientific principles. Effective and innovative evidence based Natural Health Products.

Who do you think is doing really interesting work when it comes to scientifically validating psychedelics and their medical potential? Has there been anything in particular that has caught your attention as a big leap forward?

There are too many scientific minds over too many fields of studies related to psychedelics to single out. From botanist, ethnobotanist, microbiologist, geneticists, phytochemist, analytical chemists, pharmacologist, food scientists to clinical researchers; there are so many driven and talented people doing amazing work. I am extremely excited that Havn Life has drawn in some of these top talents to be part of our organization. It is an amazing experience to work alongside area leaders like Dr. David Mokler, Susan Chapelle, Dr. Ivan Cassleman, Alexzander Samuelsson, Juliana Mollica and their extended circle of esteemed colleagues.

I also cannot overstate the importance of the user patients and their respective health care practitioners in driving the awareness of psychedelics.  They are the ones providing the impetus to shift societal change that is opening the path to scientific and clinical research.  I have an immense respect for their passion and fortitude to push for research and access; often in the midst of dealing with their own personal crises.