Local company EcoPharm harvesting plant used in hopeful cancer treatment

EcoPharm employees work in the company’s warehouse just outside Evanston. The company employees up to 25 people during the harvest and provides processed corn lily powder to PellePharm, which then extracts a chemical from it that it uses in an ointment to treat cancer patients. (HERALD PHOTO/Kayne Pyatt)

EVANSTON — EcoPharm, a little-known business in Uinta County, is a processing plant in partnership with PellePharm, a corporation based in San Francisco. EcoPharm is a Utah corporation operating as a foreign entity with the Wyoming Corporation Commission.

According to its website, PellePharm is a biotechnology company committed to targeting rare dermatological diseases, including Gorlin syndrome, which predisposes patients to develop cancer, particularly basal cell carcinomas.

The company is focused on developing “Patidegib,” a topical ointment that is designed to inhibit the growth and spread of the basal cell carcinoma. This gel-like ointment is in its Phase 3 trial period, and if proven effective, it will then receive FDA approval.

PellePharm has enlisted volunteers for the trial phases and has contracted with doctors to document the results. The FDA approval process can take from 18 months to three years. 

“Gorlin syndrome is inherited, and patients have multiple facial carcinomas,” PellePharm Vice President of Technical Operations Greg Kochendoerfer told the Herald in a telephone interview. “We hope the treatment we are in the process of developing will prevent surgery and the scarring that is a result. Also, many people suffer negative side effects from the oral treatment that is traditionally given.

Kochendoerfer said there has been an investment of many millions of dollars in the development of this product. The reason they have kept the business in the Evanston area relatively quiet is that there is a lot of competition when creating a new pharmaceutical product and confidentiality is extremely important, Kochendoerfer said.

“Also, it is a delicate and detailed process to create the ointment, and we don’t want competitors to think they can streamline the process and end up with a less effective product,” Kochendoerfer said.

So where does EcoPharm in Uinta County come into play in this product’s development? 

EcoPharm owner and operator Warren Johnson and his crew harvest the plant that provides a chemical called “cyclopamine,” which the manufacturer needs to make the ointment. The plant, Veratrum Californicum (corn lily), only grows in the remote mountain regions of western North America. 

“We have an agreement with the Forest Service and with private land owners,” Johnson said. “When we harvest the plant, we reclaim and restore the land by planting native grasses and forbs,” Johnson said. Forbs are herbaceous flowering plants. 

Johnson currently has 12 employees, but during harvest time he employs 25 people. The workers come from Evanston, Uinta County and Utah, as they harvest in the mountains of Utah and Wyoming.  

At EcoPharm, the corn lily plant is dried and processed into a powder. It is then shipped to a manufacturer in Italy, where the chemical cyclopamine is extracted to be used in the production of the ointment.

PellePharm has partnered with Phyton Biotech (a German and Canadian company) to develop a renewable supply of cyclopamine for the future production of the Patidegib topical gel. Phyton Biotech is known for its “green chemistry” in order to create sustainable resources. 

However, Kochendoerfer did say that using the natural source is less expensive and they would prefer to have multiple sources. So if the FDA approves the Patidegib topical ointment, Warren Johnson’s EcoPharm may continue to be a viable industry in Uinta County.