Uncovering the Secrets of Indigenous Medicines

Uncovering the Secrets of Indigenous Medicines

April 9, 2013

FMC Foundation News

A new Flinders Centre for Innovation in Cancer project is educating Indigenous communities about the scientific potential of traditional medicinal plants in the hope of uncovering new anti-cancer and pharmaceutical compounds.

In a project funded by the FMC Foundation, post-doctoral Research Fellow Dr Bradley Simpson will travel to the Northern Kaanju homelands on Cape York Peninsula and spend three weeks teaching Indigenous youth basic scientific skills.

“When the local teenagers are out in the field learning from their elders about traditional medicines, they may be able to use the skills I have taught them to identify new plants that could be used in Western medicines as well,” Bradley said.

L-R: Prof Ross McKinnon, Dr Sue Semple, Northern Kaanju traditional owner David Claudie, Dr Bradley Simpson, working together on this exciting research

“They will then send us those plants for laboratory analysis to see if we can identify the active ingredients.”

It is hoped the plants could contain novel medicinal or anti-cancer compounds which could provide the basis for commercially viable and environmentally sustainable new medicines.

Bradley has also been awarded a national NHMRC Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Health Research Fellowship, worth $299,564 over four years, after exploring in his PhD studies the active ingredients of Northern Kaanju medicinal plant known as ‘Uncha’, which is traditionally chewed to treat toothache.

“We tested the plant’s anti-inflammatory properties in animal models and identified its active compounds,” Bradley said.

“We are currently going through a worldwide patent process on the compounds we found, and after that we hope to work with an industry partner to develop alternative anti-inflammatory therapeutics.”

Through their new project, Bradley hopes his team will be able to explore a number of other plants to determine whether they also contain anti-cancer properties.

“Because cellular mechanisms in inflammation and cancer have a significant overlap, for example inflammation in the gut can be a precursor for colon cancer, we hope plants with similar properties might also have uses for cancer prevention or as a complementary medicine,” he said.

Bradley said funding for projects like theirs is traditionally very difficult for researchers to source.

“The FMC Foundation’s grant will allow us to conduct this important on-the-ground work which will not only help to identify new plants and potentially new clinically useful compounds, but it will also help us engage remote communities in the science of new medicines and cancer prevention.”

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