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Helius Therapeutics: Making a mark in medicinal cannabis R&D

This article was published on Sep 22, 2021, 11:43 AM

Reading time: 4 minutes

The medicinal cannabis market has been dominated by imported products. Helius Therapeutics set out to change that, using a range of support from Callaghan Innovation en route to producing the first locally grown and manufactured products.

What's in this article

    At a glance

    • After being granted New Zealand’s first GMP licence, Helius Therapeutics got the green light to manufacture medical cannabis products in a bid to bring the first locally-made products to market.
    • The business has been supported by a range of Callaghan Innovation products, helping with its R&D and in bringing new talent into the team.
    • Helius Therapeutics became the first New Zealand medicinal cannabis company to gain approval for products derived from locally grown cannabis plants in 2022, with domestic launch and export on the cards.

    New industry, new opportunities

    When Helius Therapeutics gained a Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) Licence to Manufacture Medicines in 2021, it signalled a major step forward for Aotearoa’s medicinal cannabis industry.

    The licence allows the business to make medicinal cannabis products from its base in East Tamaki, Auckland, the first in the country to do so.

    “Being the first in the industry to achieve a GMP Licence to Manufacture Medicines means that our focus firmly shifts to bringing our first medicines to market,”

    - says Helius Therapeutics CEO Carmen Doran. 

    Given the infancy of the industry in New Zealand however, Doran says “The reality is for New Zealand to successfully compete on the world stage, we need to be a leader in the R&D space, particularly in medical and horticultural innovation.”

    Combine this with regulatory restrictions presenting broader challenges to commercialisation, and Helius Therapeutics has a challenge on their hands. Luckily as Doran emphasises, Helius can draw on areas where New Zealand already excels, specifically combining high-value horticultural processes with technology and innovation.

    Helius Therapeutics CEO Carmen Doran

    Helius Therapeutics CEO Carmen Doran

    A growing partnership with Callaghan Innovation

    Founded in 2018, Helius Therapeutics spans medicinal cannabis cultivation, R&D, manufacturing, and commercialisation. The Kiwi business has invested significantly in its indoor cannabis cultivation and manufacturing complex, which is designed to achieve precision-controlled cannabis cultivation, extraction, purification, product manufacturing, and analytical testing. 

    Callaghan Innovation support, including X, Y, Z programmes, has helped the business establish cultivation, plant breeding, and medical research programmes at the business. As well, grants have helped Helius grow their R&D talent, for example bringing on postgraduate students from AUT tasked with researching novel medicinal cannabis delivery mechanisms.

    “We’ve recruited people with international experience and deep expertise - whether it’s in pharmaceutical manufacturing, cannabis research, or medical sales. Having such expertise allows us to interpret the new medicinal cannabis regulations, and work out the best ways to address them to bring innovative products to market,” says Doran.

    Callaghan Innovation also drew on Helius when developing its Medicinal Cannabis Capability Roadmap, a range of resources designed to assist and guide businesses entering the hemp and medicinal cannabis industry.

    In drawing up the roadmap, Callaghan Innovation Agritech Commercialisation Project Lead Andrew Cameron says drawing on extensive US experience from the team at Helius helped identify particular areas of the value chain that could play to New Zealand’s strengths. 

    Collaboration on that project has also benefited Helius, says Doran: “The Medicinal Cannabis Capability Roadmap developed by Callaghan Innovation is a comprehensive document. It is a great tool for all of us starting out in the medicinal cannabis industry here in New Zealand.”

    Helius Therapeutic's Auckland Headquarters

    Helius Therapeutic's Auckland Headquarters

    A fringe industry no more

    The medicinal cannabis industry is a fast growing one with vast potential. And Helius Therapeutics is set up to tap into it. 

    In 2022 Helius became the first New Zealand medicinal cannabis company to gain approval for products derived from locally grown cannabis plants. Locally extracted and manufactured, the products are being launched domestically first before being exported, with Europe and South America the priority market.

    European markets are especially easy given the MedSafe-approved GMP licence Helius already attained is also mutually recognised as meeting EU-GMP standards, which means Helius will be able to export to Europe. 

    “As a nascent industry, and one that’s also been seen to be on the fringe - although that’s changing - medicinal cannabis is a space that attracts early adopters,” says Doran. “It’s an exciting space to be in, with the coming months promising to be a game changer for New Zealand patients.”

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