Legacy Lost? Barry Sherman was helping to develop ‘pot pill’ for medical marijuana users
If it is approved by Health Canada, the “pot pill” will be one of Barry Sherman’s greatest legacies, say people who worked with the slain billionaire. (AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
A year before his murder, the Apotex founder had agreed to work with CannTrust to produce a slow-release medical marijuana pill that would treat chronic pain, depression, PTSD and more. Sherman and others felt the “pot pill” could be a game-changer in the industry and a disrupter to Big Pharma.
“It makes sense,” Barry Sherman said to the executives around the boardroom table. “Let’s do it.”
The project to develop a slow-release medical marijuana pill was on. Just a year before his murder, Sherman gave the green light on what scientists at his generic drug firm, Apotex, and marijuana firm CannTrust call the “pharmaceuticalization of marijuana.” People suffering from chronic pain, depression, anxiety, seizures, post-traumatic stress disorder and other afflictions might one day benefit, say investors in the project.
“I think Barry decided Apotex better get in on the ground level,” said Aubrey Dan, a businessman who is involved in the project, but was once a Sherman rival in the generic drug world. “Barry was a true entrepreneur. He has always been a risk taker.”
Health Canada approval is estimated to be two years away, but if it comes, the pills would be a disrupter in the Big Pharma brand-name drug world, and for Sherman’s own generic firm, providing an alternative to highly addictive opioids and other pharmaceuticals. People who worked with the late Sherman say the so-called “pot pill” will be one of his greatest legacies.
“Barry went away and did his homework,” recalled Eric Paul, CEO of CannTrust. “Then everybody got on board.”
In the year before his murder in December, the 75-year-old billionaire had a lot on his plate. The potentially revolutionary marijuana pill was one project; a major investment in a Toronto condominium tower was another. There were ongoing legal battles with his cousins who alleged that he owed them a stake in his company (they eventually lost in court), and he was still running Apotex, which he founded in the early 1970s.
Watch – Update on the suspicious deaths of Barry and Honey Sherman
Sherman showed no signs of slowing down and people close to him say the marijuana pill is a good example of his desire to take on new projects. As of now, medical marijuana is either smoked or ingested as an oil or an edible, often with uneven results. The concept Sherman threw his expertise behind was to standardize different levels of doses in pill form, using both the psychoactive and non-psychoactive elements of marijuana.
The deaths of Sherman and his wife, Honey, 70, are now being investigated as a targeted double homicide. The probe is into its fourth month but, as the Star recently revealed, Toronto police initially considered Honey to be the sole victim, according to search warrant documents filed in court. That murder-suicide theory was debunked after police received information from a second pathologist who viewed the bodies.
Of all the deals Barry Sherman was involved in, perhaps the most intriguing is his foray into medical marijuana. This is not the recreational marijuana the federal government plans to legalize this summer, which in Ontario will be sold in LCBO-run stores. Medical marijuana is already a booming business in Canada and around the world, but the product is not licensed to be taken as a long-lasting pill.
Sherman and others felt that pills or tablets with regulated dosages unique to individual patients would be a game-changer in the industry. If Health Canada grants permission, the pills will be dispensed at pharmacies with a doctor’s prescription. Here’s how the idea developed.
CannTrust, a new company, was given a Health Canada licence in June 2014 to produce medical cannabis at a facility in Vaughan. The people involved in Canntrust included brothers Eric and Norman Paul, both pharmacists and entrepreneurs. Company documents show they initially produced cannabis in a 40,000-square-foot hydroponic indoor facility, and then a second, larger facility was added in the Niagara Region.
To people with permission to purchase cannabis for medical reasons, CannTrust sells oils, drops, and dried marijuana for smoking. The company website lists marijuana products with names like Royal Purple Kush, Diesel and Sensi Star. Shipping is free on all orders of $90 or more, the site says.
Aubrey Dan, whose father founded a company that was once a rival to Apotex, is also involved in the project to develop medical marijuana pills. “I think Barry (Sherman) decided Apotex better get in on the ground level,” Dan said. (MATTHEW SHERWOOD/TORONTO STAR FILE PHOTO)
But the owners of the company, with their pharmacy background, speculated that the future of medical marijuana lay in pills that would deliver relief for six to eight hours. One investor told the Star that soldiers and others with PTSD “smoke and smoke and smoke to alleviate their symptoms.” Smoking, he said, provides short-term relief. A properly designed slow-release pill could help over a longer period.
An early investor in CannTrust was Jack Kay, Apotex’s CEO for many years and Sherman’s trusted right-hand man since 1982. Kay had over the years developed a friendship with Aubrey Dan from the rival Canadian generic firm Novopharm.
Dan’s father, Leslie, founded Novopharm, which the family eventually sold to Israeli firm Teva. In the early days, Apotex and Novopharm were engaged in constant battles, though Kay and Aubrey Dan got along well and served together on an industry council. Kay suggested in 2016 that Aubrey Dan invest in Canntrust, and he did.
Kay, who is now vice-chairman and CEO of Apotex, said he supported an eventual partnership between Apotex and CannTrust because “cannabis for medicinal purposes should not be ingested with the current and often used method of smoking.”
Barry Sherman smoked marijuana once, when he was a teenager. Beyond that, friends say, he had no connection to the drug.
CannTrust needed Apotex to start work on the science of creating the pills, and that would not happen without Sherman’s permission. A scientist himself, with a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sherman was briefed on the idea.
There are two active sides of the marijuana plant: THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), which has psychoactive properties that alter perception and provide a “high,” and CBD (cannabidiol), which has no psychoactive properties.
According to people at the meetings where the project was discussed, Sherman was not convinced at first that his company should be involved. They rolled the concepts around. In the pharmacy world, “delivery systems” refer to how a drug gets into ththee body and how long it acts. One idea was a solid pill; another was a gelatin capsule with a host of tiny pills inside.
The CannTrust materials list the “potential” positive effects of the CBD (non-psychoactive) side of the planned medication as helping with depression, seizures, nausea and anxiety, along with “antitumoral” benefits, described as possibly combating “tumour and cancer cells.”
The materials say the THC (with psychoactive properties) could potentially help with PTSD and chemotherapy-induced nausea, act as an appetitive stimulant, and relieve pain and inflammation.
Pharmaceutical companies, both brand name and generic, produce many drugs (including fentanyl and other highly addictive opioids) that might be replaced by a cannabis pill, according to proponents of the CannTrust plan. That’s why they believe their product might “disrupt” the market.
After considering the idea for a time, Sherman said simply, “Let’s do it.” That led to the creation of an agreement between Apotex and CannTrust on Dec. 23, 2016, to “develop novel dosage formats and products,” according to the long-form prospectus Canntrust filed in advance of the company going public. That means that some pills would have different levels of THC, some CBD, and some both. Eventually, clinical trials will have to be run and the results presented to Health Canada.
Sherman took a small position as an investor in CannTrust. The amount has not been disclosed. The company began trading on the Canadian Securities Exchange in August 2017.
Despite Sherman’s death, both CannTrust and Apotex plan to continue the project, with scientists at Apotex working on unique dosage formats. Sherman’s death was noted in a CannTrust press release on Dec. 18, 2017, three days after the bodies of the couple were discovered. A 5 per cent drop in the company’s share price was attributed to “the tragic passing of Mr. Sherman and his wife, Mrs. Honey Sherman.”
“While Friday’s news is tragic, and without diminishing Mr. Sherman’s importance, we remain confident that the joint venture will continue its work towards pharmaceutical product development,” the release stated.
Meanwhile, Toronto police continue their investigation into the murders, which detectives say was a “targeted” double homicide. A recent court document obtained by the Star and related to search warrants filed in the case notes that police have received “64 tips,” and 51 detectives are probing the case.