Researching advanced medicinal cannabis

14 Sep, 2021
Researching advanced medicinal cannabis
From left to right: Anushree Nagraj (PhD student), Mercedeh Lazarjani (PhD student), Carmen Doran (CEO, Helius), Maya Dian (PhD student), Holly Perry (Senior lecturer, AUT), Bruce Wallace (Chief Quality Officer, Helius) and Ali Seyfoddin (A/Professor, AUT).

AUT and Helius Therapeutics have partnered on the research and development of advanced medicinal cannabis products. Auckland-based Helius, which focuses on phytocannabinoid research, has taken on three AUT PhD students to work on the next-generation of cannabis therapeutics.

Following the introduction of the medicinal cannabis scheme in April last year, New Zealand’s fledgling medicinal cannabis industry has been focused on local manufacture of medicines, which to date, are only available from overseas.

New Zealand-made products are expected to come to market towards the end of this year and will give New Zealand patients a welcome alternative to overseas and expensive products currently available.

Recently, Helius became New Zealand’s first medicinal cannabis business to gain a GMP (good manufacturing practice) Licence to Manufacture Medicines from the Ministry of Health.

Looking to the future, it is setting up an R&D pipeline for advanced products based on research being done in collaboration with AUT.

“Our vision is to develop novel and efficacious medicines. However, to successfully compete on the world stage, we need to be a leader in the R&D space, particularly in medical innovation. Our work with AUT will lift our new industry’s R&D capability and inevitably deliver some world firsts,” says Carmen Doran, Chief Executive of Helius Therapeutics.

AUT’s medicinal cannabis expert, Associate Professor Ali Seyfoddin says, AUT’s collaboration with Helius includes developing new extraction techniques for cannabinoids and terpenes, formulating dosage forms which doctors and patients are more familiar with than the currently available edibles and sprays, as well as improving absorption and efficacy of cannabis medicines while reducing side effects.

“Some of the research will focus on terpenes, a separate compound found in the marijuana plant which has been found to have additional therapeutical effects and which when combined with cannabinoids could have an enhanced pharmacological effect, known as the ‘entourage effect.”

He says these new compounds will be able to provide patients with better targeted medicines that more effectively treat patient conditions such as chronic pain, nausea, and epilepsy.

"It’s exciting and encouraging for AUT students to work with Helius on projects that add to New Zealand’s development of intellectual property.”

Dr Seyfoddin teaches AUT’s standalone, postgraduate course, Introduction to Medicinal Cannabis. Some of the students who completed this course are now among research students working in his lab and some are already working in various sectors of the upcoming medicinal cannabis industry.

Helius Therapeutics obtained Callaghan Student Fellowship Scholarships for two of the PhDs, and the third is funded by an AUT Vice Chancellor’s Doctoral Scholarship with the support of Helius.