In Conversation With… Dr. Roger McIntyre of Champignon Brands

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In the third installment of the ‘In Conversation With’ series, broadcaster and reporter Lynsey Hooper speakers with Dr. Roger McIntyre, CEO of Champignon Brands.

Champignon Brands is a human optimisation sciences company with a special focus on ketamine and psychedelic medicine. In addition to his role at the helm of Champignon, Dr. McIntyre is a Professor of Psychiatry and Pharmacology at the University of Toronto and Head of the Mood Disorders Psychopharmacology Unit at the University Health Network, Toronto, Canada. 

Dr. McIntyre is also the Executive Director of the Brain and Cognition Discovery Foundation in Toronto; and the Director and Chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) in Chicago, Illinois.

 

Lynsey Hooper (LH): Welcome back! We hope you have been enjoying the videos so far as we release more in the build-up to Prohibition Partners LIVE, which is happening on the 22nd and 23rd of June this year — a virtual event for the very first time due to COVID-19.

I’m pleased to say that I am joined by another guest today and this is Dr. Roger McIntyre, who is the CEO of Champignon Brands and also a Professor at the University of Toronto. Roger, thank you very much for joining us today. 

Dr. Roger McIntyre (RM): What a pleasure Lynsey, wonderful to be with you!

LH: It’s fantastic to have your expertise here. I think we’ll start where we start off with everyone, which is the connection that you have to the cannabis industry.

RM: Well my connection to the industry is as a clinician, seeing so many people who have used these products, but also as a pharmacologist — I wear different hats, one of which is I am a psychopharmacologist — and we’ve been extraordinarily interested in identifying new pathways for drug discovery and development for mental disorders, neurological disorders. 

Certainly the cannabinoid system is one of the systems, but we’ve used that platform of knowledge to really spring into other areas, which has really in fact provided for us a reasonable belief — and now we’ve proven it — in treatments like ketamine and potentially [other] psychedelics in the future. So really I see the cannabis era in science is really providing a platform and fertile ground for other novel avenues for us to pursue. 

LH: Now this is such a fast-growing area, as we know, so what have been the biggest growth development areas in this industry over the last twelve months?

RM: The biggest development I think in the past twelve months has been the recognition by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that some of these novel treatments, these novel pathways, are, in the words of the FDA, “breakthrough”. 

We know that many of these treatments have gone through social, political, cultural and legal changes, not just in North America but in Europa and various other parts of the world, and in order for us in the scientific community, as well as of course in the political community, and importantly the payer in the regulatory community to all be on the same page, there needs to be alignment with respect to the legitimacy of products like ketamine, products like psychedelics. And by the FDA providing its imprimatur, its endorsement that this is not just a viable pathway with these novel approaches, but it’s actually a pathway that could be breakthrough, has created a favourable regulatory environment. It’s also created a favourable clinical and research environment for us. 

So it’s a significant time. You know, for seven decades many of your participants might be aware of the fact that the treatments for most mental disorders were largely derived from a single concept about a disturbance, for example serotonin signalling, this has been around for a long long time, and unfortunately that paradigm became like a lot of paradigms — overstretched. It became strained and stale-dated. And the excitement now, this has been afforded not just by the regulator but also by the neuroscientific capability is that we can now look at very new pathways neurobiologically to treat and — can I use the four-letter word? — cure, we can cure mental illnesses like depression, post-traumatic stress, as well as substance misuse. 

LH: Wow, that’s quite an impact to say the word cure there. Why do you think that psychedelics are only just getting the global recognition that they are?

RM: Well you know, it’s been decades where these agents have been, in many parts of the world, they have been by federal governments labeled as being potentially harmful, there’s been strict regulation, there’s been criminal sanctions in different countries, and I think many of your participants would be aware of the fact that this was a consequence of political and cultural and social activities that took places a few decades ago. 

What we’ve also really noticed in the last decade is that the science, the neuroscience which informs how we understand what’s causing some of the conditions that I mentioned, as well as how we treat them, has taken us on a very interesting journey. It’s taken us on a journey that has resulted in a destination where psychedelics and related products are treatments, are pharmaceuticals that actually could engage those particular targets. 

So in conversational speak, we think what’s causing some of these conditions like depression, post-traumatic stress, and opioid misuse, alcohol misuse, these conditions in the brain are in fact possibly targetable with psychedelics. So I think it was an alignment with the political environment, etc., but also the scientific community has said that you know, there is the possibility to repurpose these agents. 

By the way, there’d be no interest in repurposing anything if the status quo was well treated. The reality is that most people with mental illness don’t respond to the existing treatments, so we don’t have the luxury just to be complacent. We’ve been in a cul-de-sac, intellectually, for a long time. We now have a line of sight. The science has given us a line of sight, the regulatory and political environment has now aligned perfectly for us to fast-track the development of these treatments, and that’s exactly what we’re going to be doing at Champignon. 

LH: That’s fantastic. And of course, your own background is neuroscience research, you’ve had a wealth of experience there. But bringing in the investment issue, let’s talk about your role as the CEO and how people can get involved, and the opportunities for investors in this market right now. 

RM: Well I would encourage investors to look inside the window, and be very careful with the products on the shelf. There’s many, many people coming into this area. I’ve been in drug discovery and development for 20-25 years and what I have learned, and what the FDA in the United States has made very clear, as well as the EMA in Europe, is that drug discovery in psychiatry needs to be led by people who are very expert in what they’re doing in this area, and Champignon and why I’ve taken over the CEO position is because Champignon shares my vision. We need to cure — again, that four-letter word — these illnesses, and we need to have novel, innovative strategies. 

That’s the vision. But you need to have the capability. You see, because if you just have vision but no capability, I call that a hallucination. And so the capability is, you have to have the clinical infrastructure. So we’re the only group in the world that has our own clinical centres, and we’re expanding up to five to seven centres this year alone. We already have the largest research footprint in the world in depression research. We have in fact the ability to develop our own products, and we also have the human capital that can put this all together.

You see, I often call this a rugby game. When you’re running down the field during a rugby game, you’re passing the ball off to the next player, the next player, the next player, the ball can get dropped. And that’s how it happens unfortunately in drug discovery and development in neuroscience. 

At Champignon, we don’t need other people to pass the ball off to to conduct our studies, like all the intermediaries. We have taken a disintermediation theme to this, we’re doing it ourselves with our own infrastructure, taking it across the finish line ourselves. And what that has done for us is that it has provided us with a very, very short runway. We’re looking at about a year-and-a-half to two years to get to Phase 2, unlike the usual five-to-seven years. 

So as CEO, I have the opportunity to shepherd some of our resources and some of our investors towards a direction which I know, from my experience doing this, has a very very high likelihood of success. As I said a moment ago, I have believed for a long time that we have to disintermediate the process — there’s too many negative and failed drug developments in this area, and we feel this increases the changes for our success, which makes us very very different than anyone else I’m aware of, in having the boots on the ground, the infrastructure, the human capital currently, all the while while we’re developing and treating people with existing novel therapies like ketamine.

LH: And, in your opinion, are psychedelics the biggest threat to the pharma industry over cannabis?

RM: No, I don’t see them as a threat to the pharma industry, I’ve got extensive relationships with all the major pharmaceutical companies across North America, Europe and Asia. I work very closely with them, I have for over 20-25 years, I’ve helped them develop many of their products in the central nervous system space area. 

I see them as our partner. And I’ve had conversations on a weekly basis with many of these companies, and they are very interested in novel and innovative development. The FDA’s already said that psychedelics and ketamine are “breakthrough”, so therefore it’s novel.

What they would like is, they would like an entity like mine to take product from early concept to what’s called ‘early phase 2’, all that means is to get this in patient early and development, and then they’re going to partner with us to take it forward. So no, I see them as our partners, and there’s tremendous resource available with respect to CNS [central nervous system]. 

The CNS area will highly reward vendors who are able to take innovative products across the finish line. In the US alone, US$15 billion is spent on antidepressant medication, and that field is thirsty for novel treatments, and the public and private payers will pay for it, if it indeed demonstrates effect. So I think that the psychedelic area is in fact a great opportunity, and I do think that pharma, the arger pharma entities, will be paying very close attention to what we’re doing, of course we keep them informed, and I see them in fact as being our partners as we move this forward. 

LH: The current situation has been testing for everybody with COVID-19 and that’s why we’re taking Prohibition Partners LIVE onto a live forum online this year. But that will have had its effect in your industry as well — certainly regarding mental health, where it’s becoming much more prominent.

RM: Well it has, and I want to bring up a very important point which you’ve kind of tangentially referred to, and that is how COVID-19 will affect supply chain, affect implementation of research timelines.

Remember how I talked about disintermediation? Disintermediation is about taking out all of the intermediaries. In COVID-19, because of the want for physical distancing and respecting public health initiatives, has resulted in a significant reduction in not just travel and not just business in general, but a massive reduction in research going on at the current time. 

This is why it is so important to have your own infrastructure. We don’t need clinical research organisations to implement what we do. We don’t need clinical research centers to identify centers — we are the top center in the world. And we don’t need clinical research centers to identify patients that are of high-quality to get into these research studies because we have the highest research footprint in the world. So COVID-19 has had no impact whatsoever with respect to the velocity of what we’re doing, we’re just keeping going faster and faster. 

Look, we didn’t need COVID-19 to assault the mental health of the world, causing more depression, more post-traumatic stress, more drug and alcohol abuse. This assault of anxiety and insecurity and quarantine, we didn’t need that. We had enough to work with as it was. But what COVID-19 has done is it has just provided a further tailwind and urgency for us to have novel treatments. But for us at Champignon it is business as usual, full steam ahead at the centers that we currently have. 

LH: We are very pleased to hear that and we are very thankful for your time today, giving us that small insight into your world. Dr. Roger McIntyre, thank you very much for your time! 

 

You can hear more from Dr. Roger McIntyre and Champignon Brands at Prohibition Partners LIVE, from the 22 - 23 June. Additional preview interviews with some of the key speakers and panelists who will be featured at the event are available now, to watch via the Prohibition Partners YouTube channel. 

Join Prohibition Partners LIVE on 22 – 23 June to discover the latest developments in the European cannabis sector, learn from our world-renowned speakers, and engage with our network of industry-leading professionals who are pushing boundaries in the cannabis space.

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