Engineers to drive better outcomes for cannabis patients

New Zealand’s largest medicinal cannabis company, Helius Therapeutics, has launched an industry collaboration with the University of Canterbury’s Engineering Faculty.

It sees Helius working together over the coming months with Biomedical, Mechanical, and Mechatronics Engineering students supervised by Distinguished Professor Geoff Chase.

The final-year student project centres around how accurately the likes of stress, anxiety and chronic pain can be measured using wearable devices. Traditionally, assessments and medical impacts on such health conditions are measured subjectively by patients themselves and thus variability can cloud the results because patients may feel differently on any given day.

Now, four final-year UC Engineering students will assess the measurability potential of common wearable technologies, such as FitBit, Garmin and Google watches. They will evaluate algorithms, consider clinical needs, and develop methods to download data.

While all New Zealand doctors can now prescribe medicinal cannabis for any condition, healthcare professionals are crying out for more scientific data to support their own learning journey and curiosity.

“Helius is committed to providing clinical evidence to prescribers and leading substantive research into quality-of-life measures for patients. Providing absolute data to healthcare professionals will ultimately help improve much-wanted patient access to medicinal cannabis,” says Carmen Doran, Chief Executive of Helius Therapeutics.

Professor Chase says final-year projects bring together the University of Canterbury’s research capabilities, talented and enthusiastic students, and challenges that industry needs to meet.

He says this collaboration seeks to potentially create a significant advance on the objectivity of measurements that can be made in clinical drug trials where cannabis would be effective.

“Importantly, it brings a nascent New Zealand industry together with our prior research experience. Students gain valuable experience to apply their engineering skills to real problems. At the same time, sponsoring industry partners make innovative and commercial strides knowing they’ve also added to the knowledge base of future graduates,” he says.

While this collaboration measuring stress, anxiety and sleep with wearable devices may be a first for the two organisations, Ms Doran and Professor Chase have worked together before.

Ms Doran studied at the University of Canterbury with Professor Chase, graduating with a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering awarded with Distinction. Together they published more than a dozen international scientific, engineering, and medical papers.

“It was 20 years ago exactly that Carmen was a student of mine in a similarly important final-year project. The outcomes of that project led to a major change in clinical practice in ICU care. It’s great to have her technical expertise and to work alongside the country’s first medicinal cannabis business to gain a GMP Licence to Manufacture Medicines,” says Professor Chase.

Mentoring the project with Professor Chase is Dr Rick Acland - Helius board member and senior adviser. Dr Acland AFRM (RACP) is one of New Zealand’s leading pain specialists, who has been a long-time consultant at both Christchurch’s Burwood Spinal Unit and Auckland Spinal Unit.

Helius has a state-of-the-art 8,800sqm research, medicines manufacturing and indoor cannabis cultivation complex in East Auckland. Now in its commercialisation phase and delivering in the domestic market, Helius is set to export later this year.

“Innovation and collaboration are key to New Zealand creating world-leading efficacious, novel, and safe next-generation medicinal cannabis therapeutics. This collaboration with UC Engineering is a win-win-win – a win for students, a win for our company, and a win for New Zealand’s most exciting sunrise industry,” says Carmen Doran


Distinguished Professor Geoff Chase


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