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Good to grow


Carmen Doran says New Zealand could be a world leader in medicinal cannabis. Photo: Supplied.

Good to grow

Helius Therapeutics is poised to enter the medicinal-cannabis export market, led by a Kiwi with international pharmaceutical experience.

Carmen Doran worked for global pharmaceutical firms making medicines all around the world before returning home and joining Helius Therapeutics, a biotechnology company focused on medicinal cannabis. She started out with a biomedical engineering masters degree from the University of Canterbury, and as her international career took off her talents soon had her in a job covering 24 sites in 22 countries. “I worked from the UK, Singapore and Switzerland and spent a lot of time on planes, but also had lots of opportunity to see different ways of doing things and bring that back to New Zealand,” she says.

Helius Therapeutics is a Kiwi-owned business with a vertically-integrated hub in East Tamaki. It has a “plant to patient” culture: growing on site; extracting the active ingredients; developing, testing and manufacturing products; and managing the distribution.

“In my previous role, medicines or active ingredients used to show up in a container of white powder, so now I enjoy being involved in the plant-growing side of the business,” Doran says.

The company also has a partnership with Puro, a large South Island-based grower which supplies organic CBD, harvested in fields around Kaikoura.

It’s a fledgling industry, with doctors only able to prescribe cannabis products locally since 2021. Helius currently has seven products on the market, six of which are oils, taken under the tongue. It introduced a flower product in September last year, which is prescribed with a vaporizer and inhaled.

Research and development is a big focus for Helius. Three PhD students from Auckland University of Technology are working with the company to create next-generation products, and among the research projects it has funded is an endometriosis clinical-observation study at the University of Otago.

“It’s an old medicine, but also a new medicine,” Doran says. “People have been using cannabis for health reasons for centuries, but being able to get it on a prescription is new. Our R&D work helps us break down some of the barriers and stigma.”

As the first industry producer in New Zealand to receive a GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) licence, Helius is poised to enter the lucrative international market, which is estimated to reach a total global value of NZ$60 billion in 2025.

“I think medicinal cannabis is a really exciting opportunity for New Zealand to be a world leader, because it hones in on things that we’re already very good at,” Doran says. “We’re already well known for growing things such as kiwifruit, apples and wine, and our breeding and genetics programmes are world class. Then, at the other end, our clinical trial platforms mean we are able to do trials here pretty efficiently compared to the rest of the world.”

And, as Doran explains, years of growing and cross-breeding for the black market means that we now have some cannabis strains that are only found here. “This is the only place in the world, as far as we know, where you can bring genetics from the illicit market legally across into the medical market.”

Plants have more than 100 cannabinoid ingredients, and more than 400 terpenes and flavonoids. “You can imagine how many different permutations there are for bringing all of those together,” Doran says. “It’s actually the cocktail or the mix of all of these that makes our therapeutic product unique, delivering specific outcomes for patients.”

While Helius is already the biggest producer of medicinal cannabis products in New Zealand, it has also left itself plenty of space to grow. The East Tamaki facility is 8800 square metres, but currently only two commercial indoor growing rooms of 200 square metres each. It has space for 12.

Doran, who won the Inspiring Women Leader category at the New Zealand International Business Awards in 2023, puts her enthusiasm for product development down to a passion for motorsport that was nurtured early in her life. “I was always in the shed with Dad, taking race cars apart and putting them back together, and that was good training for developing curiosity about how things work, and becoming process-driven.”

The most enjoyable part of her job now is receiving feedback from customers. “I’ve worked with medicines my whole career and you normally don’t hear from patients unless something has gone wrong. With medicinal cannabis our patients reach out to our team all the time, and to me as CEO, to let us know how the products are helping them.”