27 Nov 2022

Kiwi scientists develop world's first algae-based pain medication

8:45 pm on 27 November 2022
man in lab coat and microscope

Photo: AFP

New Zealand scientists have discovered a way to produce the world's first algae-based pain medication.

It is hoped the breakthrough by scientists at Cawthron Institute in Nelson will provide a non-addictive alternative to opiods for long-term pain relief.

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor said the team had developed a reliable and commercially scalable method for producing a shellfish toxin neosaxitoxin found in marine microalgae, Alexandrium pacificum.

"When this compound is combined with existing local anaesthetics, it produces more effective, longer-lasting pain relief that is not addictive."

Damien O'Connor

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"This is an excellent outcome from the government's Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures fund. We partnered with Cawthron in 2020 on the project, each investing $950,000."

Scientists had been trying to develop a neosaxitoxin-based local anaesthetic for over two decades, but had been hampered by access to commercially pure neosaxitoxin at scale.

"Neosaxitoxin is very complex to make chemically, and Cawthron has developed a way to produce sufficient amounts from algae to meet potential global demand.

"The medication that can be manufactured using this compound provides improved long-term pain relief for patients following many types of surgery and for treating severe local pain."

As an alternative to opioids, which did not depress the central nervous system, it could "transform surgical recovery", O'Connor said.

Initial clinical trials in the United States and Europe have shown excellent results and Cawthron was now working with international partners to launch phase 2 clinical trials.

"We could potentially have a New Zealand algae-based local anaesthetic on the global market. This would be a world first and a great achievement for New Zealand science."