Algal Pain Relief

May 2022

The world’s first algae-based pain medication.

Cawthron scientists have developed a method to commercially produce, extract and purify a bioactive compound neosaxitoxin from algae, a critical ingredient in a ground-breaking pain medication. An algae, that can cause highly poisonous algal blooms in warm waters and infect shellfish during the summer, is the basis for a world-first pain medication. Nelson’s Cawthron Institute scientists are collaborating with medical researchers at Harvard Medical School’s Boston Children’s Hospital and Chilean biotech, Proteus, in the development of what is claimed is the world-first algae-based pain medication, free of opioids, that could improve the care of patients undergoing surgery.


The motivation behind the now two decades-long development of this drug is to provide more effective pain relief for both children and adults. Opioid analgesics produce side-effects and can be addictive, hence the interest in developing better non-opioid approaches to pain relief.


Cawthron scientists have developed a reliable and commercially scalable method for producing neosaxitoxin, a potent toxin from the paralytic shellfish toxin family, that can be combined with existing local anaesthetics for use for pain control during and after surgery in post-operative patients. Their work on this programme has received funding support from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment and the Ministry of Primary Industries’ Sustainable Food & Fibre Futures Fund.


Science leader for algae and bioactives research at Cawthron, Dr Johan Svenson, says this is a globally significant scientific innovation that demonstrates Cawthron Institute’s world leading expertise in algal biotechnology and bioactive compound extraction and purification. His main areas of research are marine natural products, marine biotechnology, antifouling, medicinal chemistry, biomaterials and peptide chemistry. Johan leads Cawthron’s development of a New Zealand algae sector by exploring collaborative R&D programmes to generate algal based products, novel bioactives for commercial applications, as well as analytical standards. 


“Cawthron Institute has decades of experience producing compounds from algae for a range of scientific purposes. When we began our collaboration with researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital on the development of a neosaxitoxin-based pain medication, we were confident we could develop a reliable method of production of a high-purity product, even though no other research institute before us had achieved this feat.” 


He adds that producing commercial quantities of algae is a complex business. “Figuring out how to grow it is challenging enough, but then you still need the capability to extract and purify the bioactive compound, and in the case of neosaxitoxin, there was a chemical conversion step that we have developed and patented to achieve the level of purity required.”


The algae which produces the neosaxitoxin being trialled is grown in specialised tanks at the Cawthron Natural Compounds facility in Stoke, near Nelson.


Heading up the algal biotechnology team there is Joel Bowater, who says “We get a 1000-fold increase in productivity in the tanks compared to a natural bloom. Strain selection is absolutely important, and that is one of the enabling factors for us here to produce neo (neosaxitoxin) in the concentrations we do.”


Joel says it is really exciting to be part of helping to bring this first-ever algal-based pain medication to market in collaboration with Harvard Medical School and Proteus. “This story of turning a nuisance toxic algae into a potential drug is a fantastic example of how our world-class science can make a better future for us all.”


The neosaxitoxin-based drug programme at Harvard Medical School is being co-led by Dr Charles Berde, co-founder of the Pain Treatment Center in the Department of Anesthesiology, Critical Care and Pain Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital and professor of anaesthesia at Harvard Medical School, as well as Dr Daniel Kohane, director of the Laboratory for Biomaterials and Drug Delivery and vice chair for research in the Department of Anesthesiology, Critical Care and Pain Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital and professor of anaesthesia at Harvard Medical School.