Let’s face it, psychedelic compounds like psilocybin are natural products. They’re generally gathered from the mushrooms that produce them before they can be used for testing, treatment or in new medicinal products.
But this reality puts some limitations on the industry as a whole. Cultivating mushrooms takes time, can be costly and can only deliver so much of the needed compounds at a time.
This is a problem that CB Therapeutics, a biotech company in San Diego, is looking to solve through a novel approach to compound production: fermentation. According to CEO and co-founder Sher Butt, it’s technology is cheaper, greener and easier to scale, providing the raw materials that the psychedelic industry will need as it grows.
Psychedelic Invest: Let’s start with your elevator pitch. What are you building at CB Therapeutics?
Sher Butt: We are the first biotech company in the world that has made tryptamine molecules such as psilocybin, DMT and even things like CBD and other cannabinoids in yeast. So that’s what we do every day. We have a partnership with the Cleveland Clinic to start clinical trials on many of these molecules for treatment resistant depression, anxiety, PTSD, addiction disorders, things of that nature as well.
PI: So you’re synthesizing these molecules? Is that right?
SB: Bio synthesizing. So, we’re basically fermenting them in yeast that we’ve genetically engineered.
PI: What’s the advantage of doing it that way?
SB: Well, it’s about a hundred times cheaper to do it like that versus synthesizing something in the lab. Secondly, it’s greener because you’re not using a bunch of chemicals and throwing them out as waste once you’re done. You’re using living organisms that have a smaller carbon footprint and generate less waste. Plus it’s cheaper, so it’s sort of like a win-win in all directions.
PI: When I think of fermentation, I think of obviously the end result of it as alcohol. How does the science behind this approach work?
SB: Technically what we did is we engineered brand new proteins, sort of like Frankenstein proteins that we picked pieces from and took inspiration from nature. Then we engineered them to relative perfection which allows those proteins to make a lot more of the end product than they would make in the natural plant or the fungi itself.
So, we’ve thrown in genes that allow for ultra-high expression and production of these molecules. Secondly, we’ve optimized the metabolism itself so it doesn’t make any other waste products such as alcohol, for example, which it normally does when you feed it sugar. We engineered that pathway out while including pathways for the products that we want.
PI: Where is your market for these products going to be?
SB: Most products are going to be part of FDA approved therapies. For example, there is some preliminary evidence that psilocybin helps people with treatment resistant depression. That’s why we are doing this collaboration with the Cleveland Clinic, which allows us to produce these molecules. We’re not only producing pure psilocybin and DMT or the natural molecules, but also creating a lot of analogs and variates.
Whenever we make new types of these molecules, we send them out to the Cleveland Clinic and then they’ll decide which ones they want to do clinical trials on, which can take up to 10 years.
PI: Has this work been ramping up now that things are becoming more legal?
SB: We started the company in 2016 with cannabinoids, and we’re at the point where we’re starting to sell cannabinoids now that are made from genetically engineered yeast in the lab. Psychedelics are our second project, so we’ve been working on them for about a year and a half. Now we’re getting to the point where we have a partner and are creating small amounts of product.
PI: What’s the team’s background coming into this?
SB: I worked as a lab director for the largest cannabis testing lab in the world, Steep Hill, about a decade ago. From there I went to Novartis, the pharmaceutical company and I worked with the FDA to clear drugs to market. Then I quit my job, went to business school at UC San Diego and later started another company called CB labs, which was a cannabis testing lab. I eventually sold the shares I had in that company and started CB Therapeutics.
My partner, our Chief Scientific Officer and co-founder, is Dr. Jacob Vogan, a PhD in bioengineering from UC Berkeley.
PI: Let’s go high level and talk about what you think is the potential for the technology you’re working on.
SB: I think the potential is massive.
I’ll just take the example of hemp here. Hemp typically has anywhere from 0.5-5% CBD by weight and you have to wait about three to four months to grow the crop, harvest it, etc.
Our turnaround time is about seven days. You can think of it as every seven days we’re turning over a brand new crop, and percentage wise, we’re a lot higher concentration of product than what a hemp plant would produce. So, our production price is going to be about one tenth of what the hemp farmer would be able to do.
In 5 to 10 years it will all be done this way. It’s sort of like vitamin C. Six decades ago all vitamin C was extracted from oranges and lemons. Now it’s produced via fermentation at much higher concentrations so oranges aren’t a viable way to produce it anymore. I think that’s the direction this is going for a lot of these psychedelic molecules.
PI: It’s interesting. A lot of the research I’m seeing is very small scale. Is there anything standing between your approach and scaling up production?
SB: I think the biggest hurdle in general for any company is investment, but I think we have a pretty clear path in terms of commercialization. Right now we’re fundraising for this purpose and as soon as we have the money we’re going to start commercializing this. Probably in six or seven months we’ll be on the market.
PI: You’ve been to business school. What’s the market opportunity look like for CB?
SB: For biosynthetic cannabinoids there’s a handful of players that are in a similar place as where we are. The CBD market is worth a couple of billion dollars here in the U.S. but it’s also huge in Europe and other places. So, for the cannabinoid side we’re going to be selling it as a raw material.
On the tryptamine side, because there’s so much more potential for abuse and concerns about illegality, it will take longer. We have two different pathways for revenue. One is, as soon as we commercialize in six months or so, we’ll start generating revenue from CBD and other cannabinoid sales. That will support us as tryptamines go through FDA trials over the next five to seven years.
PI: Do you think the history of cannabis and all the approvals it has received shortened the life cycle for approval for these types of products?
SB: Absolutely. And I think it’s good for both sides. People are just becoming more aware that these things are legit. They’re not just being cooked up in a basement somewhere.
I think that it’s also beneficial that the bar to entry for cannabis is pretty low. A lot of people have familiarity with that. But fewer people are familiar with psychedelics. With CBD or THC what’s the worst that’s going to happen? You might eat too much or get a little paranoid. With psychedelics, there could be real harm done if you’re not careful with dosing. The magnitude of the potential impact is many times higher.
I definitely don’t think that psychedelics should just be legalized over the counter. I think it should definitely be in a more medicinal capacity, unlike CBD or THC which I think can be used recreationally.
Learn more about CB Therapeutics at CBthera.com.