Funding for research into Pasifika and Māori traditional remedies

A PhD student from Victoria has been awarded $345,156 to research the chemical and biological properties of plants found in the Pacific that are traditionally used for medicinal purposes.

Helen Woolner, who will graduate with a PhD in Chemistry in December, received the funding through the Health Research Council’s Pacific Health Research Postdoctoral Fellowship programme. She will undertake the research over the next three years at the University’s Chemical Genetics Laboratory and with Dr Rob Keyzers and Dr Andrew Munkacsi as her supervisors.

Helen hopes her research will “elucidate the science behind the tradition” and help Māori and Pasifika people harness the full potential of their long-held natural health practices.

Helen, who is of Cook Island Māori descent, remembers her mother and grandmother using traditional plant-based medicines to treat minor ailments when she was a child. “But only when I started studying science 12 years ago, did I gain an understanding and an appreciation for my mum and grandma’s use of medicinal plants.”

As a starting point, she will draw on research by 2016 Victoria PhD graduate Dr Seeseei Molimau-Samasoni, who used biological and chemical tools to identify the iron-chelator compound in a Samoan plant that is traditionally used for its anti-inflammatory activity—like a natural ibuprofen.

“I will use biological and chemical experiments used by Dr Molimau-Samasoni, along with others, to track and further purify the active chemical component of a Samoan plant species known for its natural healing properties. Once in a pure form, I’ll be able to evaluate the compound for its potential activity against diseases associated with iron-overload that are of significant concern within the Pacific.”

Helen will then look for novel compounds that may produce healing properties in other selected plants from Samoa, the Cook Islands and New Zealand.

“These results will provide insight into the chemistry and biology of traditional medicine in the Pacific,” she says.

Dr Munkacsi says the chemical biology of Māori and Pasifika traditional medicine is poorly understood, especially when compared to traditional medicine in other parts of the world.

“Helen’s research could identify the compounds that have potential to be pharmaceutical drugs. Drugs that could do what the traditional medicine has been doing for hundreds or thousands of years, or something related or even something new.”

Dr Keyzers says Helen’s research feeds into the growing need for new medicines,

“Worldwide, there’s an understanding that biodiscovery of new medicinal compounds is vitally important. At the same time, we need to recognise that 80 percent of the world’s population rely on herbal (traditional) medicines. So understanding how these work, how efficacious the treatments are, and what unforeseen effects they may have, is of great importance.”

Helen will have additional research support from Hikurangi Enterprises, the Scientific Research Organisation of Samoa, Professor Anne La Flamme from Victoria University, and Professor Greg Cook from the University of Otago.