At a glance
Skin infections are usually considered irritating rather than life-threatening.
Impetigo, a skin disease that disproportionately affects children and impoverished people, can develop into much more serious and life-threatening illnesses.
The condition is believed to have contributed to All Black great Jonah Lomu’s chronic kidney illness, which ended his rugby career and ultimately led to his untimely death in 2015 at the age of 40.
Impetigo and other bacterial skin and wound infections are usually treated with antibiotic skin creams. But growing antibiotic resistance is rendering antibiotic creams ineffective. By 2050, it’s estimated that antibiotic-resistant infections could claim as many as 10 million lives globally each year.
The solution is more than skin-deep
One potential solution lies in the oil extracted from East Cape mānuka trees.
“East Cape mānuka oil has high levels of a chemical called beta-triketones with powerful antibacterial, antiviral, anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory and anti-aging properties,” explains Dr. Suki Harding, Director and Head of R&D at Manuka Bioscience.
Since 2016, Manuka Bioscience has been developing and selling ManukaRx branded skincare products for dry skin, acne, fine lines, cuts and more. The business has amassed a customer base 23,000-strong through online sales to customers in New Zealand and Australia.
But under Dr. Harding’s guidance, Manuka Bioscience is also working with the country’s leading research organisations to develop treatments for more serious skin conditions.
In partnership with the Medical Research Institute of New Zealand, Manuka Bioscience recently received Health & Disability Ethics Committee (HDEC) approval and Standing Committee on Therapeutic Trials (SCOTT) approval to begin two stage II clinical trials. These trials will see children aged 2-14 suffering from impetigo, and people suffering from eczema, treated with Manuka Bioscience proprietary mānuka oil-based formulations.
These trials and necessary lab work have been supported by two Callaghan Innovation Project Grants and the agency’s business and science leaders have offered extensive advice to assist Manuka Bioscience’s R&D programme.
“Our business innovation advisor Mark Robinson and Technical Support Manager Dr. David Clarke have been fantastic to work with,” says Dr. Harding. “They are helpful, professional, supportive and responsive.”
“We received extremely valuable advice from Dr. Stephen Bloor and Dr. Leonardo Negron (Biotechnologies) enabling us to resolve several technical challenges”, Dr Harding says.
“We’re now working with Monique Parsler (Advanced Materials), Dr. Teresa Moreno and Dr. Rebecca Edgar (Biotechnologies) on three feasibility studies”.
An R&D lifeline
Amidst the uncertainty of COVID-19 in 2020, Manuka Bioscience’s capital raise for R&D came to a grinding halt. A $400,000 Callaghan Innovation R&D loan has allowed its R&D work to continue, enabling the business to proceed with capital raise plans in 2021.
“Our research proves that we have a mānuka-oil based formulation that’s highly effective against the common staph and strep bacteria, as well as the antibiotic resistant staph, MRSA, known as the superbug, which is very tough to treat,” says Dr. Harding.
Māori and Pacific Island communities are the hardest hit when it comes to impetigo in New Zealand. In Australia, 49% of children in some Aboriginal communities suffer from the condition. This is the highest incidence of impetigo in the world.
“If we’re able to help improve the health of these communities and at the same time actively support the development of East Cape rural communities with jobs for local people, income for iwi landowners and educational programmes, it’s a huge motivator for us”, Dr. Harding says.
Mānuka oil is extracted from leaves and small branches harvested from trees growing in East Cape plantations. Steam is passed through the leaf material to produce pure mānuka oil. This is part of a fruitful partnership between Manuka Bioscience, mānuka oil producers and local landowners.
From waste to wealth
A Callaghan Innovation-supported feasibility project is exploring how to extract value from mānuka waste biomass, while simultaneously reducing its fire risk. The Mānuka leaf waste is slow to degrade and is highly flammable.
Turning this waste into products such as wound dressings, face masks and packaging materials could create economic value while reducing health and safety risks.
The mānuka oil industry is currently small – just ten tonnes of oil is produced each year, but given escalating demand for botanical ingredients and proven therapeutic properties of mānuka oil, Dr Harding believes there’s huge growth potential in this sector, both as an export industry and a source of employment.
“Over the last 12 months, we’ve initiated several new projects that will produce some important and near-term commercial results. We simply couldn’t have done any of this without the support of Callaghan Innovation.”
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Updated: 12 May 2021