Kiwi 'breakthrough' drug for gout

Gout sufferers who endure "incredible agony" could find relief in a new breakthrough drug developed in Wellington.

Scientists at Crown research institute Industrial Research Limited have been working on the treatment with researchers at New York's Albert Einstein College of Medicine since 2003.

IRL's head of industrial biotechnology, Richard Furneaux, said developing the drug – currently named "BCX4208" – would see between $135 million and $270 million being spent on the biotechnology industry in New Zealand.

A team of 12 scientists are working on the project in Wellington.

Though it could be years before the drug made it to the market, a second stage of human clinical trials had begun in America.

The first stage had shown that the drug was safe and had few side effects, Dr Furneaux said.

There were currently two drugs available to treat chronic gout, and the new drug worked in a "novel" way to target the condition earlier than other medicines.

The most commonly taken drug for chronic gout was Allopurinol, which Dr Furneaux said was approved for use 40 years ago. The second drug made to treat the condition was approved for use last year and not as widely used.

In America, two million people took Allopurinol, but 100,000 were unable to because of its side effects – the most common being skin rash.

"There's been a long time when there's been no new treatments. This offers people a choice."

Arthritis New Zealand chief executive Sandra Kirby said gout affected tens of millions of people globally but rates in New Zealand were five or six times higher than the rest of the world.

The Health Ministry estimates the condition affects 1 per cent of the population, but say it is significantly underdiagnosed and likely to affect many more people than that, she said.

Gout was particularly common among Maori and Pacific Island people, and New Zealand research showed that this was likely to be for genetic reasons.

"People generally think of it as being a rich white man's disease, or the disease of kings. That's not the modern day experience."

Ms Kirby said Maori and Pacific Island people who suffered from gout appeared to be unable to process uric acid, a waste product that caused gout when it crystallised and built up in the body.

It affects mainly working-aged men and, while treatments existed, Ms Kirby said a healthy diet and regular exercise also helped the condition, which caused sufferers "incredible agony".

Jacqui Harper, who headed the Malaghan Institute for Medical Research's gout programme in Wellington said a new treatment with few side effects would be "good news" for chronic sufferers.

What Is It?

The third most common form of arthritis, gout causes severe pain and swelling in joints. It usually affects only one or two joints at a time.

The ball of the big toe is the most common site. Gout is caused by the buildup of the waste product uric acid in the body. Most people can process uric acid, but if they can't, it crystallises in the body's joints and causes swelling.

The new drug targets and blocks the enzymes that cause uric acid to crystallise. Existing drugs do not target those enzymes, but work to reduce the buildup of uric acid once it has crystallised.

The Dominion Post