Isis Trenchard

An estimated 5.5 billion people live in countries without access to painkillers, according to The New York Times.

While an epidemic of prescription drug abuse occurs in America, lack of painkillers exists in much of the world.

This is an issue that Antheia, a Menlo-Park-based startup founded by four women, including BME alum Isis Trenchard, is trying to solve. Antheia’s work involves using yeast to produce painkilling compounds such as hydrocodone and other opioids. Their objective is to commercialize the technology used to develop engineered opioids.

“There are a lot of inefficiencies associated with relying on plants to produce our pain medicines, and we’ve developed a more efficient way to produce them that will be less costly.” Trenchard says.

Her focus with the startup is in research and in bringing this technology to market; she is working on optimizing and scaling up the process.

Trenchard made it to Silicon Valley by way of The University of Texas Austin, where she declared BME her major in her sophomore year. While studying at UT Austin, she did research with Dr. Nicholas Peppas, who eventually introduced her to a research opportunity that would set the trajectory for her career. She spent the summer between her junior and senior years of undergrad at Rice University, conducting research with a new professor, Dr. Junghae Suh. Suh worked in synthetic biology, and because the field was newer, she had the students working with her watch online lectures.

One of those online lecturers was Dr. Christina Smolke, another one of Antheia’s founders. Smolke piqued her interest with her work on RNA and controlled expression. While attending a BMES meeting near CalTech, where Smolke taught, Trenchard took the initiative to set up a meeting with Dr. Smolke. When Dr. Smolke accepted a position at Stanford University, Trenchard applied to graduate school and became Dr. Smolke’s first graduate student at Stanford, where her journey in engineering yeast to produce drugs began.

At first, Trenchard thought she would become a professor, but she shifted gears halfway through grad school and decided to focus on the idea that would eventually become Antheia: that there are valuable and interesting medicines that come from plants, but a lot of times it isn’t feasible to grow crops to get these medicines. So, engineers can use yeast to produce these valuable and complex compounds, and potentially other medicines as well.

“It’s insane how many drugs exist in nature that we may not have access to because it’s not practical to harvest them. But if we can engineer them we have the potential to develop new medicines and we have the potential to manipulate them to make them less addictive,” Trenchard says.