Victorian scientists develop life-saving innovation for childbirth through Inhaled Oxytocin Project

Dr Michelle McIntosh, from the Inhaled Oxytocin Project

Groundbreaking research from the Inhaled Oxytocin Project at Melbourne’s Monash University is giving hope to the tens of thousands of vulnerable women who die each year from post-partum haemorrhaging (PPH).

Oxytocin reduces the risk of PPH but while it is readily available to women in the developed world, millions in resource-poor countries don’t have access to it.

“The limitation of oxytocin is it’s an injection and the injection product requires storage in the refrigerator in order for it to maintain quality,” explains Pete Lambert, project director at the Inhaled Oxytocin Project.

“If you picture a woman in Sub-Saharan Africa giving birth in a village or a remote clinic, you can understand that it is very difficult for them to maintain storage of that oxytocin, if they have access to it at all. Often there is not a sufficiently skilled birth attendant present to be able to administer the injection safely.”

That’s where the Victorian research team comes in. Headed by Dr Michelle McIntosh and Lambert from Monash University, the Inhaled Oxytocin Project has created a stable version of oxytocin that can be inhaled, making it more accessible and safer.

“What we have been able to do is to firstly stabilise oxytocin in a powder form, which is able to stand temperatures outside of the refrigerator up to 40 or 50 degrees Celsius (104 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit), and present that power in a small, very simple to use inhaler,” says Lambert.

Top global health innovation

The Inhaled Oxytocin Project is predicted to have an enormous impact on global health.  According to the World Health Organisation, around 60,000 women die from PPH each year––99 percent of whom are in the developing world. These lives could be saved if there was an easier and safer way of accessing oxytocin.

In fact, the 2015 report Reimagining Global Health listed the Inhaled Oxytocin Project as one of the top 30 high-impact innovations in global health.

Dr McIntosh recalls: “Hillary Clinton presented that award and in her speech talked about the innovation that was coming from Monash being something that could save tens of thousands of lives.”

Indeed the report calculates that the Monash project could save 146,000 women’s lives over eight years, an important recognition of what McIntosh says is “a Victorian-based innovation that’s been fostered and developed in Victoria”.

The study is just one of many to recognise the enormous potential of the Inhaled Oxytocin Project. In 2015, the United Nations mentioned the project in the report Saving Lives, Protecting Futures. The group also received a A$1 million-grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Grand Challenges Exploration to conduct Phase II trials and has partnered with global pharmaceutical company GSK to take the concept to a final product.

Next steps

The Monash University researchers hope to publish the results of their first clinical trial in the United Kingdom by June 2017, and are also working on developing “really efficient manufacturing capability” in order to “ensure we can keep the cost as low as possible and ensure affordability to the countries that we work in which are obviously very resource-strained,” explains Lambert.

As the Inhaled Oxytocin Project reaches closer to this goal, McIntosh says she is proud to be part of a project that “can really make a difference.”

“It is a social justice issue in that there is a drug that is very effective and it is very inexpensive and you just feel obligated to try to make that available to everybody.

“All of the team feel very fortunate that as pharmaceutical scientists we have the skills to do that and so we should.”