Legislation to medication: Carmen Doran on how medicinal cannabis is transforming the health of New Zealanders

12 December 2023
By Sarah Murray

Carmen Doran, chief executive officer of Helius Therapeutics, sheds light on the field of medicinal cannabis in Aotearoa, including how the company is supporting a clinical study into endometriosis, and why we should be as comfortable discussing the drug as paracetamol.

Helius was founded in 2018. In fact, we have just celebrated our fifth birthday. It was the first New Zealand medicinal cannabis company to achieve the licence to manufacture medicines, and the first to bring products to market for our Kiwi patients. We have now been in market for over two years with a strong pipeline of future products for relieving suffering of patients at home and internationally.

I’ve worked in making medicines around the world for most of my life. I spent 10 years travelling the globe with Novartis Pharmaceuticals (consistently ranked in the top five pharma companies in the world) before spending five years consulting, especially in biotech. I’ve always worked at the forefront, introducing new products to market and new technology, building new sites and new systems and processes.

I’m a biomedical engineer by background. I love figuring out how things work. I joined Helius as chief operating officer in 2020 to oversee the completion of construction on our 8800-square-metre site in East Tāmaki, Auckland. In 2021, I stepped into the chief executive role ready to commercialise the site and take medicines to patients around the world.

The most common formats for taking medicinal cannabis are through inhalation or orally. Both formats are available here in New Zealand via prescription. Our Helius site is vertically integrated, which means we cultivate medicinal cannabis onsite, which can become dried flower or go onto further processing. We extract the cannabinoids (or active ingredients) to make oil-based medicine and make and test the finished products at our site too. We have our own dedicated research and development lab onsite, which is working on future products.

We are really proud to be producing New Zealand-grown, New Zealand-made medicines for our Kiwi patients right here. The great news is that any doctor here can prescribe medicinal cannabis for any condition for a patient in their care. From there, any pharmacy can dispense the prescription through the normal channels, though we do recommend patients shop around pharmacies as we as a manufacturer do not set the final price and there can be some variation.

Carmen Doran. Image, supplied.

In Australia, we can see that the most common prescriptions of medicinal cannabis are for pain, anxiety and sleep. Whilst that data isn’t available here yet, this lines up with the feedback we receive from healthcare professionals. Medicinal cannabis is being prescribed for a variety of things across New Zealand. For me, the really impactful stories are when someone has tried other things that didn’t work, or had bad side effects, and then medicinal cannabis changes their life as well as the lives of those in their support network. At the moment, Helius is supporting a clinical observation study together with the University of Otago in the area of endometriosis in New Zealand. I’m really excited that we’ll be able to share those results in future.

It’s great to know we are helping so many patients. In the period from January to August this year, almost 100,000 packs of medicinal cannabis were dispensed across the country. As we are unable to advertise about our products, it is word of mouth that is getting people curious to learn more. The stories I hear from the doctors prescribing are truly life-changing and inspirational. What’s even more powerful for me is that patients reach out to tell me so I can tell the team who make their medicines. That hasn’t happened in other pharmaceutical companies where I’ve worked.

I think we can break down the stigma around medicinal cannabis by using data and science to help prescribers understand how the medicine works. While many Helius patients are new to medicinal cannabis, we also have patients who transition from the illicit market into a medical setting supported by healthcare professionals. A 2022 Drug Foundation survey tells us that while over 40% of cannabis consumers are using the plant for medicinal purposes, only six percent are doing so via legal avenues. For me, it’s unfair that anyone should have to be a criminal to access the medicine they need. Helius is proud to support access and affordability for patients so they don’t need to resort to that.

Helius is breaking down the barriers through education. It’s a new medicine but it’s an old medicine and the body of research is growing all the time. The stigma is reducing and people are feeling more comfortable talking to their doctor, their friends or their family about medicinal cannabis, just as the previously taboo women’s health subjects of endometriosis and menopause are coming out of the shadows. It’s essential that we spread the word, so if someone wants to learn more, they know they can reach out to their trusted healthcare professional to ask questions.

One of the biggest challenges is that many people don’t know that medicinal cannabis exists. It’s two years since the Medicinal Cannabis Scheme went live and with the advertising restrictions, companies like Helius are not able to talk about the details of product, price or availability. Medicinal cannabis is also a new area of medicine. The system in our body that works with cannabis was only being discovered about 30 years ago, so many doctors are not taught about it. We want our doctors to understand the medicines they are prescribing, so we do a lot of work on education, both at conferences and at our Helius facility.

The medicinal cannabis landscape is changing all the time with countries sometimes loosening their rules and sometimes tightening them. I think we will see more awareness and understanding of cannabis as a medicine around the world, especially as we are all more aware of what we put into our bodies and doing our own research on what might be an option to discuss with healthcare professionals. Here in NZ, we will see more options available for patients and more doctors comfortable with prescribing for a wider range of conditions. Being able to support this through data is something I am personally passionate about.

I’m excited to explore the great expertise we have in NZ around breeding and genetics and how we can apply that science to medicinal cannabis with targeted medicines. I think we will see medicinal cannabis flower move into an adult-use model around the world, and more sophisticated delivery formats come into the medicinal cannabis market. This will help to remove some of the stigma that comes with medicinal cannabis flower.

I want to see people comfortable talking about medicinal cannabis, like they are with paracetamol. I want to see more trials into unmet needs where often other medicines, such as opioids, are not working or have bad side effects for patients. And I want to help more patients improve their quality of life.

Visit helius.co.nz to find out more.

This article originally appeared in Fashion Quarterly‘s Summer 2024 issue. 

Imagery: supplied.


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