Nadine Sander-Green, Faculty of Science
Nov. 27, 2023
UCalgary researcher wins prestigious award for helping develop non-opioid painkillers
A UCalgary researcher is part of a team developing revolutionary medication that could have a significant impact on millions of people who suffer from chronic pain.
Dr. Ketul Patel, PhD, a Mitacs postdoctoral fellow in the Faculty of Science, has just won the prestigious Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation—Postdoctoral for his work on developing a first-of-its-kind, non-addictive medication to treat chronic pain. The work is being done through an innovative partnership between Patel and the UCalgary startup Zymedyne Therapeutics — whose work is aimed at the development of pain therapies that do not have the drawback of opioids that has led to the opioid crisis.
“It’s a huge issue. In North America, up to 30 per cent of people are suffering from chronic pain, and right now opioids are still the main treatment. If our drug comes onto the market, we believe this could be ground-breaking,” says Patel, who works under the supervision of Dr. Darren Derksen, PhD, associate professor, Department of Chemistry.
The award was presented to Patel during the 2023 Mitacs Awards ceremony at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on Nov. 22. Patel says being the recipient is an incredible honour and a significant achievement in his career.
“It’s beyond personal. It recognizes all the hard work and dedication of the whole team. And it’s a recognition of innovation, which keeps inspiring me to stretch my boundaries as a researcher.”
Patel is being recognized for making a major advancement in pain management by developing a new small molecule that targets a newly discovered pathway for pain relief. Highly addictive opioids such as Vicodin, OxyContin and Percocet rely on opioid receptors in the human body to inhibit pain, whereas Patel’s compound acts on another target, T-Type calcium channels, providing a non-opioid-dependent avenue for effectively mitigating pain without the detrimental side-effects of opioids.
Patel synthesized dozens of molecules before identifying the current lead molecule, which is now being used to test new drug formulas in animal models, with promising results.
“So far we haven’t observed any drug tolerance, which is the major drawbacks of opioids,” says Patel.
Patel explains that working on a drug that could transform the lives of millions of people is what keeps him motivated, and it’s why he got into the field to begin with.
His commitment to drug discovery has been deepening with every step of his career. Before working in the biopharmaceutical industry for two years, Patel completed his PhD in pharmaceutical chemistry from the National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research in his home country of India. In 2020, he made the leap to join Derksen's research group as a postdoctoral fellow at UCalgary. The following year, Patel became a Mitacs postdoctoral fellow in the same research group.
Mitacs — a national innovation organization that fosters growth by solving business challenges with research solutions from academic institutions — presents The Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation—Postdoctoral to a Mitacs intern who has made a significant achievement in research and development innovation. Patel is one of nine Mitacs award winners nationally, chosen from thousands of researchers.
“I am thrilled to extend my congratulations to Dr. Patel for this exciting achievement,” says Dr. William Ghali, vice-president (research), University of Calgary. “This award exemplifies our university’s commitment to lead change by combining academic excellence with the spirit of innovation.”
The spirit of innovation is truly at the heart of this revolutionary project. Zymedyne Therapeutics has received investment through the UCeed Child Health fund and the UCeed Health fund. UCeed funds, trains, mentors, and supports startup companies during the critical transitional stage between innovation demonstration and commercialization. The largest university-based venture fund of its kind in Canada, UCeed is backed by philanthropy and invests in early-stage startup companies. UCeed’s goal is to expand the economy and accelerate innovation in Calgary and beyond.
Zymedyne was founded by Dr. Chris Bladen, PhD‘15, and Dr. Gerald Zamponi, PhD‘94, a professor at the university’s Cumming School of Medicine.
Bladen refers to the quest for an effective and non-addictive medical treatment for chronic pain as a “unicorn” of sorts. It’s an aspiration that pharmaceutical companies have been chasing for years.
In addition to a full patent on the novel pain mechanism, the company has now filed two U.S. provisional patents on these newly developed drugs and is expecting to start clinical trials within the next few years. The hope is then to partner with the pharmaceutical industry to help get the drugs to market and provide a safe and effective alternative for the millions of people around the world who suffer from chronic pain.