World’s first algae-based local anaesthetic another step closer to reality

A partnership between the Government and the Cawthron Institute has delivered a breakthrough in the production of a potent microalgal ingredient for the world’s first algae-based pain medication, Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor announced.

“Scientists at Cawthron Institute in Nelson have developed a reliable and commercially scalable method for producing neosaxitoxin, a shellfish toxin found in marine microalgae Alexandrium pacificum,” Damien O’Connor said.

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

“This is an excellent outcome from the Government’s Sustainable Food and Fibre Futures (SFF Futures) fund. We partnered with Cawthron in 2020 on the project, each investing $950,000.

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.

“It offers an alternative to opioids for the management of post-operative pain. Because it’s long-lasting, isn’t addictive and doesn’t depress the central nervous system it could transform surgical recovery.”

Damien O’Connor said a neosaxitoxin-based local* anaesthetic has been under development for over two decades, but taking this drug to market has been hampered by access to commercially pure neosaxitoxin at scale.

“Now, thanks to Cawthron’s research breakthrough, there is potential to meet a future global demand for the active pharmaceutical ingredient of between 500 to 1000 grams per year,” Damien O’Connor said.

Phase 1 clinical trials of Cawthron’s product have been completed in the United States and Europe and rated well for safety and efficacy in achieving more prolonged duration of local anaesthesia for infiltration and nerve blocks, compared to traditional local anaesthetics.

“Cawthron is actively working with international partners to take this drug through Phase 2 clinical trials and beyond,” Damien O’Connor said.

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

Damien O’Connor said the project aligns with the goals of the Government’s Aquaculture Strategy.

“The strategy has a goal of moving from commodity to value-add by developing new species and higher value products. This project has achieved this in spades and has the potential to earn new export revenue for New Zealand,” Damien O’Connor said.   

“We are proud to support this work through SFF Futures, which could ultimately prove a game-changer for patients across the globe.”

*Local anaesthetic, as opposed to general anaesthetic