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You probably take your knees for granted until the day you start to feel pain in one or both of them. Chronic knee pain is an enormous issue worldwide - in Europe alone, an estimated 40 million people suffer the pain of osteoarthritis in knee joints, and there are limits to how well current treatments work to manage that pain.

For a team based in Galway though, the answer could lie in an injectable gel carrying molecules to block pain channels. The aim is to dull the sensation of pain without interfering with other, important sensations that the knee needs in order to work, and the project has received a massive boost through the Science Foundation Ireland Future Innovator Challenge.

The idea for the gel, called RM010, was sparked when Dr Alison Liddy took part in the BioInnovate Fellowship programme at the University of Galway, and saw patients and clinicians alike struggling with knee osteoarthritis.

“I was talking to pain specialists and seeing people getting injections into their knees, but that wasn’t managing the day-to-day pain well for the patients,” recalls Dr Liddy, CEO of Relevium Medical.

Graphic showing a person indicating they have pain in their lower back and neck
"And really there were only two injectable options - steroids, which can damage the joint over the long term and hyaluronic acid, which is safe but not very effective against pain."

She listened to patients speak about how taking painkillers by mouth could lead to stomach problems and other side effects, not least the prospect of addiction, and how patients were sometimes just living with the pain instead and getting injections ahead of specific events such as weddings.

Dr Liddy and pharmacist Dr Barry McDermott set to work with colleagues on developing an injectable gel made from hyaluronic acid, which has already been proven safe in the knee joint, combined with a molecule that specifically blocks pain channels in nerves.

This molecule is designed to make the injected gel more effective at stopping the feeling of chronic neuropathic pain, the kind felt in osteoarthritis as well as several other conditions.

Dr Liddy and Dr McDermott co-founded Relevium Medical and worked with a team including pain specialist Professor David Finn, Professor Martin O’Halloran, electrophysiologist Professor Leo Quinlan and Professor Garry Duffy to develop the technology, which won €1million in the SFI Future Innovator Prize.

“Without the SFI Future innovator Prize we would not have been able to develop the technology, we wouldn’t have all this learning and science,” says Dr Liddy, who received the SFI Commercialisation Award for 2022. “We were also able to expand the team and develop models to test the technology in the lab.”

Relevium has now also secured a grant of €2.4 million through the European Innovation Council as well as investment from the Y Combinator and from US-based biotechnology investors. The next stage for the company is a phase1/2b clinical trial in patients.

“There is a lot of scientific research on tackling diseases that cause chronic pain, and that is very important, but the issue on a daily basis for patients can be the untreated pain from this progressive disease,” says Dr Liddy. “And this is where we hope our technology can really improve the lives of people living with knee osteoarthritis.”