Kiwi researchers developing a new anaesthetic as an alternative to highly-addictive opioids have been given an $8 million boost.
The Medical Research Commercialisation Fund today announced an investment of $8 million in Series A funding to allow the developers to set up Kea Therapeutics Ltd, an early stage pharmaceutical company which is developing the drug.
Kea Therapeutics is a spin-off from the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre and Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences Waikato Clinical Campus, University of Auckland.
The investment, the first from the fund for a New Zealand company, would allow the company to commercialise its substitute for strong opioids in a range of clinical scenarios from pre-hospital to post-surgical pain relief and sedation.
Medical Research Commercialisation Fund investment manager Duncan Mackintosh said non-opioid pain relief was urgently needed for the management of severe pain.
"Opioids have a range of unwanted side effects, are highly-addictive and are causing a global epidemic of dependency on this type of pain medication. Kea's approach offers the potential for a safer alternative to opioids for the management of pain that is not addictive and could be used in a wider range of clinical settings."
Anaesthetist, Professor Jamie Sleigh from the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences Waikato Clinical Campus, recognised the need for non-opioid pain relief alternatives.
Working with medicinal chemist Distinguished Professor Bill Denny at the Auckland Cancer Society Research Centre, they initiated an integrated drug discovery programme to develop a new drug which retained the positive, pain relieving features of ketamine, while removing significant side effects that limited its broader clinical use.
Denny said opioid tolerance and abuse was now such a huge problem, particularly in America, an alternative was needed.
About 15 per cent of patients were now tolerant to opioids because of previous abuse, he said.
Denny and Sleigh started working on the drug in 2010 after Sleigh suggested there must be a way to use ketamine as an anaesthetic without the nasty side effects which included hallucinations.
"The problem with ketamines, adults say it's a terrible experience and they don't want to use it again," Denny said.
They had now developed an analog of it which would put people to sleep but allow them to wake up as soon as the infusion was stopped, with no psychosis.
The drug had been tested on rats with success and Denny hoped they would now be able to start clinical trials in about a year.
Evelyn Body, UniServices director of commercialisation for biotechnology and board member of Kea Therapeutics, said Kea Therapeutics wanted "to transform the pain relief industry with a much-needed, non-opioid approach" and the funding would help them get to clinical testing and then on to the global pharmaceutical market.