Published on
January 8, 2021

Nethaji Gallage | CEO & Co-Founder, Octarine Bio

People Mentioned
Nethaji Gallage
CEO & Co-Founder

After obtaining her MSc. in Biotechnology, Nethaji joined Birger Lindberg Møller’s group at the Plant Biochemistry Laboratory (UCPH) for her PhD studies during which she founded a completely new research field in the department: The biosynthesis and bioengineering of vanillin. During her three year postdoc at Centre for Synthetic Biology (UCPH), she led research into establishing a biosynthetic platform for superior cannabinoids. Nethaji has a track record of multiple high impact scientific publications and patents in the field of synthetic biology. Now, Nethaji is taking this research and applying it to the field of Psychedelics. Nethaji Gallage is the founder and CEO of Octarine Bio.

What made you personally want to get involved in this field of research?

I am a scientist and an entrepreneur specializing in synthetic biology and biochemistry. I am driven by the curiosity of understanding nature at a molecular level and applying that knowledge to re-design nature with new abilities that have applications across many disciplines.

In my PhD studies, I worked on the world’s most popular ingredient, Vanillin, and bioengineered this molecule production which we later commercialized via a partnership. Other than its fantastic taste, this molecule activates human TRPV receptors, which are also called happiness receptors. When I successfully finished my PhD in 2014, I wrote a soft funding grant application to Danish Innovation Foundation to establish a group at the University of Copenhagen, which was called “The Happiness Research Initiative”, a cross-disciplinary research project with multiple academic and industrial partners, where I wanted to study molecules such as psychedelics, cannabinoids etc. and their mechanism of action. However, Denmark was not ready for that at that time, so I received funding through my PI to establish a research group around cannabinoids. Cannabinoids research was spun out of the University of Copenhagen in 2018 as Octarine, when Nick (Octarine co-founder) and I joined forces. That is how everything started. 

What inspired you to create Octarine? What are you looking to accomplish?

The reason we are focusing on cannabinoids and psychedelics is that many neurological and psychological conditions are poorly served by current drugs; leaving physicians, patients and their families desperately seeking alternative therapies, sometimes illegally. We strongly believe that Cannabinoids and psychedelics are poised to offer breakthrough therapies for these debilitating conditions.

However, in order to achieve the full potential of these molecules, there are key problems to deal with, firstly, establishing a stable, high purity supply (production issues), and then innovative & efficient products (product issues). Octarine is unlocking the potential of nature and harnessing synthetic biology to re-design radical new approaches to combat poorly served health conditions. ​Our end goal is to enable efficient treatments to patients who suffer from medical conditions where there are no proper treatments.

Are you using any unique methods in isolating a psychedelic derivative that you can speak on?

We produce molecules through a biosynthetic/yeast fermentation method. Biosynthetic production is much more efficient, scalable, highly iterative and sustainable. Another key value proposition is purity of products; when you engineer a microorganism, you can select what your final product should be, avoiding structurally similar contaminants. Octarine also produces novel and improved cannabinoids and psychedelics where we have filed composition IP.  

What are Psychedelic derivatives? What kind of novel compounds are you working on?

We have established enzymatic platforms encompassing a large number of enzymes from certain selected classes of enzymes. We screen cannabinoids and psychedelics through our high throughput enzymatic platform; following that, modified molecules are subjected to in-vitro screening to verify their pharmacokinetics (PK/PD). Selected molecules through in-vitro screening are then subjected to pre-clinical studies in animal models where we select our lead molecules for a certain therapeutic indication.  

What kind of therapeutic potential do you see in psychedelics and what kind of impact could that have on healthcare?

I believe, if we can alter the psychedelics to be more receptor specific and, in some cases, remove the psychedelic experience or shorten it, then there are multiple therapeutic potentials for these molecules, beyond what is tested today. This is something that we are actively working on.

Why have you chosen Psilocybin to work with?

Psilocybin is just one molecule out of many in our portfolio. A few years ago, we already knew how to make huge quantities of psilocybin intermediates for a different reason, so this was the obvious final target. At the time, the psilocybin work was completed by Nick Milne (Octarine cofounder) at the Technical Institue of Denmark (DTU). The psilocybin renaissance was slowly beginning, yet it was not at the same stage as it is today. We had to put in a huge effort to convince DTU to delay the publication and file IP around the production and composition matter IP on some of the novel molecules. We are currently finalizing a legal agreement between DTU and Octarine for the exclusive licence.

What can people expect to see from Octarine in the future?

You will see Octarine is moving in a clear “Life Science” trajectory, entering pre-clinical trials and clinical trials by itself and through partnerships. 

What is the most common misconception you hear about Psychedelics?

There is a general public perception that psychedelic drugs are dangerous & addictive; from a physiological standpoint, serotonergic psychedelics are, in fact, one of the safest known classes of Central Nervous System (CNS) drugs. They do not cause addiction or dependence. 

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

Despite the relative physiologic safety of psychedelics, they can lead to serious psychological consequences. Judgement is certainly impaired while under the influence of these drugs. Because of that, it is very important that these treatments are taken under supervision and that efficacy, proper dosage, and administration methods of these molecules are tested through clinical programs.