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As the U.S. opioid epidemic rages on, the need for effective alternative pain medications is only becoming more acute.

Seattle-based biotechnology company Kineta has been working on a non-opioid pain treatment technology for several years, and Monday it announced a multi-million dollar collaboration with biotech giant Genentech to develop and license that work.

As part of the deal, Kineta will receive an undisclosed up-front payment along with up to $359 million in additional payments as the technology hits commercialization mileposts. Kineta CEO Dr. Shawn Iadonato told GeekWire the companies hope to bring drug candidates into clinical trials within the next two years.

“The pain space has not had a lot of new and innovative therapies in it,” Iadonato said. “Most of things that we have to treat pain, aside from opioids, are really just repurposed drugs,” like repurposed antidepressants.

Kineta CEO Shawn Iadonato. (Kineta Photo)

Kineta’s work targets a receptor on neurons around the body, called the α9/α10 nicotinic acetylcholine receptor, or nAChR. Because the receptor is only found in the peripheral nervous system, not the brain and spinal cord, Iadonato said drugs that target it likely won’t have the same severe side effects as opioids.

“We see this as an opportunity to block pain at the site of the injury, wherever that may be, without having potentially those addictive, tolerizing, altering qualities — effects on cognition and coordination and respiration — that you see in opioids,” he said. The drugs also likely wouldn’t be as addictive as opioids.

Kineta is working on several drug candidates that target the receptor, Iadonato said. The company will form a joint research committee with Genentech to continue developing those candidates.

Iadonato said the drug candidates they’ve tested do actually have some side effects — but they seem to be positive.

“We actually see the drug has a disease-modifying effect,” he said. “It reduced the amount of inflammation around injured nerves and we also have healthier-looking nerves in animals that are treated with the drug.”

In short, the drugs seem to be treating the pain more directly than other pain treatments.

“Currently, pain is really just considered a symptom of disease, but to be able to treat pain like a disease condition and to have drugs that have disease-modifying activity in pain — it would be novel, and it would be really quite different than how we’ve treated pain in the past,” Iadonato said.

Kineta is headquartered in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood and employs 38.

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