Humans have been using cannabis for around 2,000 years and up until around 100 years ago, it was widely used as a natural therapeutic.
But the process for medical marijuana treatment has been anything but standardized. There’s very little science-based research on how to prescribe it to patients. Doctors typically decide that medical marijuana is the best treatment option, give patients a medical marijuana card and leave it up to the patient to choose their own therapeutic.
For any other type of prescribed medication, the doctor would send their patient home with a specific one in mind. Because it’s so generalized, patients with anxiety often can become more anxious about picking their own cannabis therapeutic—and in some cases will even choose one that increases their anxiety instead of alleviating it.
This is the exact problem that Chapel Hill-based Exsto Bio seeks to address. Founded last year by three UNC grad students, Co-Founder Juan Carlos Pacheco said they are on a mission to set the standard of patient care through the personalization of medical cannabis treatment and the development of first-in-class therapeutics.
Pacheco is currently a third-year JD-MBA student at UNC Chapel Hill. Before that, he studied at a Catholic seminary for five years. After spending an internship year working at a parish in Atlanta, he decided becoming a priest wasn’t for him.
From there, he took a job at the UNC Newman Catholic Student Center for two years as the Director of Service and Justice, serving students and families. All of this was part of the journey that led him to start his UNC graduate programs and become the face of a venture that seeks to provide healing to others in a different way.
Pacheco had long been interested in the cannabis industry, but last year, he found the perfect partners to begin Exsto Bio (previously ReLeaf Bio) and bring the business idea to life. Co-Founders David Lee, who is working on a PhD in neuropharmacology, and Keith Rogers, a PhD candidate in toxicology, bring on the technical experience.
As of today, all three co-founders are working in the Launch Chapel Hill accelerator program to get Exsto Bio further through development.
Exsto Bio’s model is three-tiered. The team has initially focused on science-based testing of cannabis strains, compiling a database of which particular strains have therapeutic compounds, which have more toxic traits and what mode of ingestion works best for each. From there, Exsto Bio will produce their own therapeutics to more scientifically target patients in need for anything from anxiety, seizures to pain relief.
They also have an opportunity to personalize the treatment process, taking a patient’s bronchial and nasal cells and crafting the therapeutics specific to them, which is especially helpful for patients who believed medical cannabis was not an option because of the smoking element.
“We’re really excited about the opportunity to dive headfirst into this and to create some novel therapeutics that really help a lot of patients,” Pacheco said.
Exsto’s telehealth platform will also work to counter the lack of education on cannabis therapeutics among both patients and medical professionals, so that more people can successfully get treated in a way that works for them.
“There is still a stigma that surrounds medical cannabis and just a general lack of understanding because it has not been a very science based approach so far,” Pacheco said. “Through our telehealth platform, we hope not only to educate medical professionals about medical cannabis, the different effects and working with their patients, but also to equip them on how to prescribe.”
Doctors who are more hesitant to prescribe medical marijuana will now have a larger source of scientific research to back up which strain they should give to whom.
It’s part of a lofty goal of improved patient treatment, but it’s something Pacheco believes can be done. So far, the main understanding of medical cannabis has mostly been anecdotal in nature, and Exsto Bio’s database and platform is looking to change that in the future. Launch Chapel Hill has been a way to connect their current company’s steps to that greater mission.
“We have a lot of futuristic, creative, innovative thinkers, which makes it easier for us to get to that long-term, 30,000-foot-view vision,” Pacheco said. “But what’s been great, especially about working with Launch Chapel Hill, is just being able to dive into this as a team and the resources we have to be able to refine that down to where we’ve got our three-step system.”
The entrepreneurial ecosystem at large in the Triangle has enabled Exsto Bio greater insight as they grow. Other founders, investors and research professors are willing to share their successes and failures, which the Exsto team incorporates into their company, Pacheco said. The community of entrepreneurs that Launch Chapel Hill is entrenched in has been especially helpful.
“Just to get that general, honest, trustworthy feedback, but also the community of people, it has been the best part,” Pacheco said.
When the Exsto Bio team looks ahead, they see a wide potential of growth. Nationwide, legislation around medical cannabis is opening the sector up to more development. During the coronavirus lockdowns, cannabis sales skyrocketed.
There are still barriers in the sector, of course: cannabis regulation varies across states. But even in the Southeast, most states are considering versions of Compassionate Care Acts for medical marijuana.
Hoping for NC laws to “catch up”
While Exsto Bio has so far had to use hemp and Delta 8 to get its proof of testing concept down since marijuana is illegal in North Carolina, Pachecho is confident the laws will catch up in time. Otherwise, they will move their company to a state with friendlier medical marijuana laws.
In addition to creating a higher standard of care when it comes to medical marijuana, Pacheco sees Exsto Bio’s mission as a way to invest in the people in their community. They plan to hire people with previous nonviolent drug offenses to help them get back on their feet, since these are often people who received convictions for using the same plant that Exsto Bio is using to help people.
“A lot of people in our community have lost out on a lot of opportunities due to the weight and stigma of a previous drug conviction,” Pacheco said. “So we’re hoping to give restorative opportunities and a second chance to a lot of these individuals by bringing them on to come and work for us.”
Exsto also wants to bring on interns from underrepresented communities to boost STEM participation from a young age.
Looking ahead, Exsto Bio is looking to patent its testing process and secure an unknown amount of funding for product development.