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Spin-Off Gains Seed Funds for Non-Opioid Pain Drug

Molly Shoichet

Molly Shoichet (University of Toronto)

11 Jan. 2019. A company spun-off from a university medical materials lab received start-up funds to develop a non-opioid surgical pain therapy, including a clinical trial. AmacaThera, based in Toronto, gained $2.45 million in seed financing for its long-acting anesthetic, injected as a gel, that aims to substitute for opioid pain drugs usually given after surgery.

AmacaThera’s technology is based on the research of its scientific founder Molly Shoichet, a professor of chemical engineering at University of Toronto. Shoichet’s lab studies polymers for drug delivery, regenerative medicine, and tissue engineering, which led to 3 spin-off enterprises including AmacaThera. She’s the recipient of  the North American Laureate for the L’Oreal-UNESCO for Women in Science and the the Killam Prize in Engineering, the most important engineering prize in Canada. Until recently, Shoichet also served as Ontario’s chief scientist.

One area of interest to Shoichet and colleagues is injectable hydrogels, water-based polymers combined with hyaluronan and methyl cellulose, that make it possible to formulate extended release drug compounds. Much of the Shoichet lab’s work with injectable hydrogels is for drugs delivered into the brain or spinal cord.

For AmacaThera, however, the immediate interest is a hydrogel formulation of long-acting anesthetics injected near a patient’s surgical site. The company’s lead product, code-named AMT-143, is designed release an anesthetic over 2-3 days, and substitute for opioid drugs prescribed to relieve surgical pain. Canada’s problem with opioid drugs mirrors that of the U.S. A study published in August 2018 shows half of all opioid-related deaths in Ontario in 2016 involved prescription drugs, either prescribed directly or diverted.

“It’s actually a pretty high percentage of addicts who start taking these opioids early on for surgical reasons,” says Shoichet in a university statement. “If this could obviate the need for people to take opioids in the first place, it would have a real societal benefit.”

AmacaThera is a 3 year-old company founded by Shoichet and former postdoctoral researcher Mike Cooke, now the company’s CEO. The company licenses a hydrogel process from the Shoichet lab called inverse thermal gelling that enables the material to be stored at room temperature. But when injected into the body, the gel hardens somewhat, allowing for slow release of the encapsulated anesthetics.

“Right now, drugs are given as a solution, which just won’t stay at the incision,” notes Cooke. “It gets into the blood and washes away into the body. But the gel keeps the pain medication at the site where you need it.”

The company’s seed funding of CAD 3.25 million (USD 2.45 million) is led by Sprout BioVentures and Viva Biotech, joined by Grey Sky Venture Partners. The funds are expected to support development of the surgical pain gel through an early-stage clinical trial. AmacaThera received start-up help from a number of campus entrepreneurial resources, including incubation at the Creative Destruction Lab located in New York, Toronto, and several other Canadian cities.

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