Helius secures major grant for $2.4m R&D project in New Zealand

Helius Therapeutics has confirmed it’s the recipient of a substantial grant for its New Zealand-based cultivation, plant breeding and medicines research programme.

Cannabis cultivar breeding research – Helius

The $2.4 million research and development project has been approved for co-funding of up to 28% by New Zealand’s innovation agency, Callaghan Innovation. Supporting innovative and high-performing R&D businesses, the agency has committed to contributing up to nearly $600,000 (excluding GST) to Kiwi-owned Helius Therapeutics over the next three years.

Chief Science Officer at Helius, Dr Jim Polston, says Callaghan Innovation’s co-funding will help Helius advance unique cannabis genetics and develop safe, consistent, and high-quality, novel cannabis medications for clinical trials.

Dr Jim Polston, Chief Science Officer, Helius Therapeutics

As New Zealand’s largest medicinal cannabis biotechnology company, Helius is currently completing its $20m state-of-the-art GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) facility in East Auckland. It is focused on cannabis cultivation, cannabis oil extraction, advanced cannabinoid research, and medicines manufacturing.

“Healthcare professionals want medicinal cannabis to meet traditional pharmaceutical standards and, to gain regulatory approval, our products will go through extensive clinical trials. Our focus at Helius is to unlock the vast potential of cannabis to develop novel medicines, targeting specific health conditions, which are ideal candidates for clinical trials. Ultimately, that’s what this co-funding will help us deliver,” he says.

He says with an initial focus on treating pain, sleep and neurological disorders, Helius’ breeding programme will allow for the development of a library of unique genetic material, focusing on cultivars with strong potential to treat specific conditions.

As well as creating the highest quality medicinal cannabis for product development, Helius’ R&D work also aims to optimise indoor cultivation conditions. This includes Helius’ New Zealand-exclusive partnership with BioLumic to implement proprietary UV treatments, and creating unique, reproducible cultivation methods.

Analytical testing of cannabis material at Helius

Dr Polston says compared to other plant-based medicines, cannabis presents unique technical challenges, given there are about 400 different chemical entities in the plant and a universal lack of understanding around which constituents produce certain beneficial effects.

He says creating consistency around the plant and its extracts, and isolating certain constituents, is challenging but paramount to creating standardised cannabis medicines.

“Over the last five decades, cannabis has been selectively bred for high THC content. Too little attention has been placed on breeding the minor phytocannabinoids, of which there are several non-intoxicating varieties with exciting medicinal potential. Isolation and purification of minor cannabinoids has proven difficult but remains incredibly desirable.”

Dr Polston says the creation of a substantial and robust local genetic breeding programme by Helius will help put New Zealand in a unique position to lead the global market in R&D, with the country ideally suited for cost-efficient clinical trials.

Chief Executive of Helius Therapeutics, Paul Manning, says Helius’ medicinal cannabis products will be world leading in their efficaciousness, safely substituting or sparing many conventional pharmaceutical products. Helius is also innovating and developing optimal indoor cultivation methods, completely new to the cannabis industry globally.

“This significant co-funding awarded by Callaghan Innovation will not only help us deliver quality, affordable cannabis medicines to thousands of Kiwi patients, but our R&D, which is happening right here in New Zealand, will be transferrable to many export markets. When we think about reigniting the country’s economy after Covid-19, what better opportunity than highly innovative, ‘New Zealand Made’ medicines development,” says Mr Manning.

Dr Jim Polston says Helius is strongly placed to be a global leader in cannabis technologies, working collaboratively with a range of specialist scientific partners, while complementing and extending international research.

“We are honoured to receive this level of support, and look forward to bringing next-generation cannabis therapies to patients across New Zealand and the world,” he says.

For more information about Callaghan Innovation and the organisation's work supporting New Zealand's most innovative companies, visit their website here.

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