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Joanne Zhang, Co-Founder, Phytoption LLC shares progress on the company's drug that could mitigate the SARS-CoV-2 virus

Joanne speaks to the pharmaceutical ingredient in Phytoption’s drug that has a “broad-spectrum antiviral effect” against many viruses… including SARS-CoV-2

Joanne Zhang, Co-Founder, Phytoption LLC
Joanne Zhang, Co-Founder, Phytoption LLC

Joanne Zhang MS, MBA is a Penn State graduate who had experience running businesses at Fortune 500 food and chemical companies before co-founding Phytoption LLC, a Purdue University spinoff developing patented functional ingredients for personal care and pharmaceutical applications, and antiviral therapeutics the company says could fight against COVID-19 and other viral diseases. Based in West Lafayette, Indiana, Phytoption received both federal and state Small Business Innovation Research Awards, and was the winner of ACS’ pitch competition in August 2019.

Zhang manages business development, fund raising, and daily operations at Phytoption.

Phytoption LLC, cofounded by Joanne Zhang, has developed a patented technology that "significantly boosts" drug solubility and bioavailability, and has been used in the development of antiviral therapeutics. The drug contains an old active pharmaceutical ingredient – niclosamide – that is used to treat tapeworms. Niclosamide was also found to have a "broad-spectrum antiviral effect" against many viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. However, its poor solubility hinders its bioavailability in oral forms. Phytoption’s technology made its new oral drug formulation 5-10 fold more bioavailable, thus unleashing niclosamide’s therapeutic efficacy.

Phytoption has received funding from the COVID-19 Early Treatment Fund, which was founded by serial entrepreneur Steve Kirsch, to fund clinical trials of repurposed drugs to treat the disease. Phytoption also is working with scientists at the University of Chicago, the Purdue Institute of Inflammation, Immunology, and Infectious Disease, and the Bindley Bioscience Center at Purdue to further development of its technologies.

Phytoption seems to be involved in a lot of industries, and has many growth opportunities. What is the company’s primary focus right now?

The biomaterials Phytoption has been working on is a platform of new materials derived from the same source. Due to the superior properties and functionality, the materials can be used to solubilize drugs or to improve cosmetics functionality, and many other applications. While we continue having collaborators exploring the variety of applications, our team is heavily focused on drug development. We see the urgent need to have an effective oral form of a COVID-19 drug. Since the progression of the viral infection can be very quick and new variants are emerging, having a broad-spectrum antiviral treatment that is widely available and accessible globally is a key to fight current and even future pandemics.

What’s the status of your niclosamide drug that showed potential for mitigating the SARS-CoV-2 virus? How do you envision bringing that to market?

Recently we have achieved outstanding milestones on the COVID-19 drug development. Our oral drug candidate NIC-OHPP-101 has shown high in vivo bioavailability and prolonged drug halftime in plasma. Such superior bioavailability has also translated to drug efficacy results from a SARS-CoV-2 virus-challenged animal study done at the University of Chicago. As you see, we are keeping busy during the pandemic. We are working hard to bring the drug to the market to save people. As the regulatory pathway might be different in different countries, we welcome collaborations with global companies. I hope your readers will please feel free to reach out to me if there is any interest.

You have a strong background in launching new products, purchasing, finance, and M&A. What’s been most challenging for you personally in working with investors and growing the company?

My business background was a huge plus to get things started. Startups need a hands-on team. However, you can never be completely prepared until you become an entrepreneur. I thought that I was well prepared but only discovered that I still had a lot to learn about, such as fundraising. 

What’s been the most challenging aspect of the science at Phytoption, and ongoing R&D? How large is your team and what are their roles?

I believe for any start-up, the primary goal is to solve problems for the customer or society at large. I’ve found that even companies that have science or technology innovations must constantly learn how to adapt that innovation to solve real needs. Companies that do well in this regard win. No exceptions. Phytoption is focused on solving real needs in the market. We have a team of six. For the drug project, since a lot of the preclinical studies are done by specific labs, we are keeping our team lean, but we cover a wide range of expertise, including materials science, drug development, regulatory, toxicology, manufacturing, and business operations.

Where do you think Phytoption will be five years from now in terms of products and technology?

I see one of our drugs now in development being approved by the FDA and available for patients. I would also see us building a drug pipeline and progressing ahead with product delivery.

What advice would you offer young scientists/entrepreneurs hoping to advance their own ideas into commercial products?

Understand what the market needs and focus your effort on solving a problem. Have an open mind to learning new things and strive to constantly improve. 

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

Copyright 2021 American Chemical Society (All Rights Reserved)

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