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Cannabis collab will see NZ deliver world-first medicines

New Zealand’s largest medicinal cannabis company, Helius Therapeutics, has announced a collaboration with Greenlab - the country’s most experienced biotechnology company in medicinal cannabis genetic development and breeding programmes. The joint research programme aims to further unlock the potential of medicinal cannabis. It will expand Helius’ genetics library, enabling the company to develop more specialised and targeted therapeutics for patients unable to find solutions through conventional pharmaceuticals. “Discovering more about the make-up of the cannabinoid profile, and encapsulating those discoveries, will ultimately help us deliver to patients with unique needs, chronic, and multi-layered conditions,” says Carmen Doran, Chief Executive of Helius Therapeutics.

The collaboration is co-funded by Helius itself and by a Callaghan Innovation grant the company received in 2019. Funding from that grant has already gone towards identifying the most advantageous cultivars from imported seeds for the formulation of cannabis medicines. Identifying strains with strong potential for disease-specificity has also been key. Helius will now expand its genetics and breeding programme to allow for the development of unique genetic material - work it believes will sharpen New Zealand’s competitive edge on the world stage of cannabis medicines.

“Helius has completed some initial genetics and breeding programmes internally and we’re now into new product development. Formulating future medicines requires a library of unique genetics to select from, and that’s what we’re now building. It’s an exciting programme,” she says.

Ms Doran says with over 140 cannabinoids and terpenes already discovered, many with therapeutic outcomes, further unlocking the cannabis plant’s potential through collaborations like this is exciting research for both companies and the country.

Founded in 2019, Greenlab became the first South Island-based cannabis company to be awarded a R&D licence. Since then, it has become the country’s most experienced in medicinal cannabis genetics evaluation, believing it is now three years ahead of any other New Zealand competitor. Last year, Greenlab was the recipient of The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures (SFFF) grant for its Lincoln University-based $1.9 million medicinal cannabis genetics research programme.

“We have been impressed with Greenlab’s commitment to science and exemplary practice and process as well as its determination to help develop novel and efficacious products for patients here and across the world,” she says.

Over the next 12 months, Greenlab will work with Helius’ genetics library to assess, and evaluate, based strictly on a set of criteria Helius is looking for to develop future medicines.

“Our decision to work with Greenlab will see us expand our breeding library with genetics unique and specific to New Zealand and to Helius. They have talented scientists, a dedicated research unit and equipment, as well as close ties to Lincoln University,” says Ms Doran.

Greenlab Director (Research & Commercialisation) Dr Parmjit Randhawa says it has chosen to work with Helius as the company was the first into the New Zealand market, is close to exporting, and is keen to develop and deliver truly world-first products with patients’ complex healthcare needs at the fore. He strongly believes the collaboration will go long way to fast-tracking and establishing the emerging medicinal cannabis industry in New Zealand.

“New Zealand regulations gave our researchers access to vital local cannabis genetic material - unlike Australia. This regulatory hallmark has already put New Zealand at forefront of medical cannabis research to develop and grow novel germplasm for characterised compounds, repeatedly four to six times in one calendar year.

“This will be a win-win for the licenced growers, end users, and manufacturers to get the flower consistency batch after batch,” says Dr Randhawa.

Helius says its decision to collaborate with an outside research partner will only accelerate its product pathway. Importantly, it will also minimise cross-contamination with its commercial plants as the Auckland-based company ramps up for export this year. Helius has also invested in tissue culture capability to store a wider range of genetics onsite at its headquarters. “Expanding our genetics library is key to developing specific and unique pharmaceutical products which we’ve got pipelined. It’s also about satisfying critical European market requirements which is a priority destination for us,” she says.

In July 2021, Helius became the first medicinal cannabis company in New Zealand to be GMP certified and gain a Licence to Manufacture Medicines covering the first products to market. Recently the Ministry of Health renewed and expanded Helius’ licence, allowing the company to register additional medicines and make active ingredients onsite from raw cannabis material. Already delivering in New Zealand, Helius is set to be the first company to produce both Kiwi-grown and made cannabis medicines in the world.

Every New Zealand doctor can now prescribe medicinal cannabis for any health condition, with local products proving more cost effective for Kiwi patients. “New Zealand’s quality standards are recognised throughout Europe and in many other countries. However, like everything else, New Zealand must compete on quality not quantity. That’s why collaborations like this are so important for our country’s newest industry. We need to deliver new and novel products that work where others don’t,” says Carmen Doran.

Helius is fast becoming known for its research collaborations. Others include its work alongside Auckland University of Technology (AUT) PhD students, the University of Canterbury’s Engineering Faculty, and Palmerston North-based company BioLumic on world-leading ultraviolet technology.

GreenLab's Jaswinder Sekhon and Helius CEO Carmen Doran

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