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Scientist and co-founder of biotech company Amatheraca, Dr. Molly Shoichet in Toronto on Feb. 19, 2021.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

One of Canada’s most celebrated scientists, Molly Shoichet, is stepping up plans to take a key discovery out of her lab and into the marketplace.

On Monday, AmacaThera Inc., the third startup spun out of Dr. Shoichet’s University of Toronto lab, is announcing it has raised $10.3-million from investors in Canada, the United States and Europe to take its product – an injectable gel that can improve postsurgery pain treatment – into human safety trials this year.

Dr. Shoichet is chief science officer, while her former postdoctoral research student and co-founder, Michael Cooke, is chief executive officer.

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Dr. Shoichet holds the Canada Research Chair in Tissue Engineering and was Ontario’s first chief scientist. She has won two of Canada’s top science prizes– the $1-million Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering in 2020 and the Killam Prize for engineering in 2017.

“She’s the reason we did the deal,” said Peter van der Velden, managing general partner with Toronto’s Lumira Ventures, which led the financing, backed by Viva BioInnovator, BDC Capital Women in Technology Venture Fund, Inveready, MBX Capital, CR Capital Management, StandUp Ventures and MaRS Investment Accelerator Fund.

“The work out of that lab is truly transformative and she’s a leader in the space. We thought there was an opportunity to build an interesting platform company based on her core technology.”

Dr. Shoichet’s lab uses materials called hydrogels to surround and protect drugs or stem cells when injected in the body, enabling them time to do their job. Work from her lab has led to applications to treat cancer, strokes and blindness.

AmacaThera’s core material is an invention licensed from the lab that combines hyaluronic acid, commonly used in anti-wrinkle cosmetics, and methyl cellulose, which turns into a gel when heated. On its own, methyl cellulose gels at 90 C; combined with the acid, it does so at body temperature, making it useable in humans.

When existing drugs are mixed into the concoction, “we can control how quickly they are released” in the body, Dr. Shoichet said. “I like to think of us as the FedEx of cells and drug delivery. FedEx provides the packaging and figures out how to get what’s inside where and when it needs to be there.”

AmacaThera’s initial target is postoperative pain relief. Doctors typically use local anesthetics such as bupivacaine for surgeries. But the drugs wear off in 12 to 18 hours, at which point opioids are prescribed for pain relief. Studies have shown that leads to millions of cases of opioid dependency annually.

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Dr. Shoichet and Mr. Cooke believe that if their hydrogel can hold and gradually release a larger dose of the anesthetic over three days, it can get postsurgical patients to the point where they don’t need opioids. That could improve pain management, cut hospital stays and reduce opioid addictions. “The economic effect [would be] huge, and on top of that there’s the benefit to the patients and society,” Mr. Cooke said.

Hance Clarke, an anesthesiologist who directs pain services at Toronto General Hospital, said a product for sale in the United States called Exparel can extend the anesthetic effect to 24 hours.

“There’s no doubt this would be a significant breakthrough if [AmacaThera] could come up with a therapeutic option” lasting 72 hours after surgery. “If they can get this across the finish line there’s certainly a home for this to land in clinical medicine.”

A growing number of research academics have warmed to the idea of commercializing their work in recent decades, though Canada has been slower to embrace the trend.

That was never the case for Toronto-born Dr. Shoichet, the daughter of two entrepreneurs, who worked early in her career at a U.S. biotech startup. She was keen to spin out inventions from her lab after starting at the University of Toronto in 1995, making her “an anomaly” at the time, she said.

She was concerned her graduate students were leaving for the U.S. “because there were very few opportunities here. So I became motivated to make a difference and help create more opportunities” in Canada.

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The first startup spun out of her lab in 1998 was called BoneTec Corp. She sold her shares to co-founder John Davies three years later. In 2002, she founded MatRegen Corp. and served as president, raising more than $2-million before the company wound up in 2008.

By the time she and Mr. Cooke co-founded AmacaThera, in 2016, Dr. Shoichet had learned a few lessons as an entrepreneur: Keep early-stage commercial technology in an academic setting as long as necessary and “make your mistakes in as safe a place as possible.”

The company also needed a full-time CEO she could trust, she said. She couldn’t fill that job herself and also run a lab, but Mr. Cooke, who had joined her lab in 2008 while pursuing his PhD, was game.

AmacaThera, which raised US$1.8-million in seed funding in 2018, hopes to pass the safety trials and move to efficacy trials involving 100 postsurgical patients next year, Mr. Cooke said.

The hope is that the technology can eventually be used to deliver a range of drugs, providing greater benefits with its time-release properties. “We really like that approach,” said Michelle Scarborough, managing partner with the BDC fund. “It solves a really big problem with a line of sight to commercial potential.”

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