Proving the protective properties of propolis
At a glance
A Kiwi natural health company that helped pinpoint the active compound in Mānuka honey has also spent the last decade investigating the protective properties of propolis – and the results are compelling.
Honey has been used medicinally for thousands of years but the scientific evidence for Mānuka honey’s healing properties is barely a decade old. Over that same period, a growing body of evidence has been mounting for the power of propolis.
Shortly after Mānuka Health was established in Te Awamutu in 2006, the company invested in an R&D partnership that identified the key active compound in Mānuka honey as methylglyoxal (MGO), a naturally-occurring substance with antimicrobial properties that work to prevent the growth of microorganisms, including bacteria and some viruses. That discovery has contributed to the incredible growth in the global market for Mānuka honey. NZ exports of Manuka honey were $243m from January – December 2019, accounting for 70% of the total NZ honey exports over the same period.
Alongside the burgeoning honey market, Mānuka Health has experienced its own impressive growth: the company has more than 200 staff, 1.5 billion bees, an HQ in Auckland, a honey processing and distribution center in its hometown of Te Awamutu, facilities and offices in Carterton, Australia and Germany, and strong international markets for its products.
Mānuka honey accounts for the vast majority of Mānuka Health’s product sales but the plan has always been to drive further product development based on ongoing research.
To support the R&D and help in the development of new products, Mānuka Health teamed up with scientists from Callaghan Innovation’s Integrated Bioactive Technologies (IBT) group and seconded Chief Engineer Dr Owen Catchpole - an expert in supercritical extraction - into the business on a part-time basis.
One of the main focuses for this research partnership has been investigating the protective properties of propolis, a sticky substance that bees make from plant resins and their own beeswax, and then use to seal and protect their hive from invaders and infection. In New Zealand these resins are sourced from the buds and leaves of poplars that have to withstand the country’s harsh UV rays and climatic conditions.
Dr Catchpole’s broad remit from Mānuka Health included identifying the bioactives (or the active compounds with demonstrated health benefits) in propolis and developing an analysis method for quantifying these bioactives.
“Developing evidence-based products to meet the needs of our consumers has always been paramount to Mānuka Health,” says CEO Ben Boase. “The company’s investment in R&D, and the work carried out with Callaghan Innovation, means the efficacy of our products is underpinned by science, something our customers really value.”
One of the early findings relating to the active compounds was the high levels of caffeates and flavonoids in New Zealand propolis. Subsequent tests have shown the dosage levels of these bioactives to be five times higher - and even as much as eight times higher in Mānuka Health’s BIO100™ product - than in China-sourced propolis which is used in other cheaper propolis products in the market.
The significance of those higher levels was made clear by Dr Catchpole’s research into the properties of those compounds.
“We’ve shown in our in vitro testing that these compounds are very strong antioxidants with strong immune modulating properties, and they are antiproliferative – they stopped key harmful cells growing in cell-based assays,” says Dr Catchpole.
“It’s important to note that these results are only in cell-based invitro tests, but they are very promising findings.”
Critically, Dr Catchpole’s research also showed it was the caffeates from the propolis – rather than the flavonoids – that showed the highest antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-proliferative activity.
Given caffeate levels are high in New Zealand propolis – and not present at all in some internationally-sourced propolis – coming up with a scientific, replicable process for quantifying the level of active compounds in Mānuka Health’s new products became a key R&D focus.
The analysis method developed by Callaghan Innovation’s IBT group means Mānuka Health can guarantee the level of active compounds in their propolis products.
“Mānuka Health’s BIO30™ rating means, for instance, that their propolis capsules are guaranteed to contain 30mg of bioactive flavonoids and caffeates for every two capsules.”
The majority of propolis products on the market source their propolis from China, or else from South America, and have rating systems that give the equivalent weight of raw propolis used to make the product (such as 500mg or 1000mg). Other rating systems focus solely on flavonoids.
“Giving the equivalent weight of the raw propolis in a product doesn’t provide any insight into whether there is any bioactivity in the capsule,” says Dr Catchpole. “This is a case where bigger isn’t better. People think the bigger the number on the packet, the more concentrated (and bioactive) their capsules must be, but in fact what it says is that the raw propolis they’ve used could be very low quality and have minimal active components.”
Mānuka Health naturopath Kim Bulder likens it to extracting precious metals from a lump of rock.
“It’s not the weight of the rock that matters, it’s all about the gold. The bioactives in the propolis are the ‘gold’ and the BIO rating system means people can be sure they are getting the active compounds that support good health.”
Since developing the analysis method to determine the propolis compounds, Callaghan Innovation has transferred the methodology to Mānuka Health’s in-house testing laboratory – continuing a pattern of transferring valuable patented science back into the business.
Natural health benefits
Off the back of their R&D work and product development with Callaghan Innovation, Mānuka Health has developed a range of dietary supplements for immune support and vision protection as well as oral spray, lozenges and toothpastes. The company now holds 12 propolis patents in New Zealand and offshore relating to gastro-intestinal anti-cancer bioactivity of BIO30™ compounds, skin anti-cancer bioactivity of BIO30™ propolis compounds, epithelial (skin and gastro-intestinal) anti-cancer activity of BIO30™ propolis complexes.
As consumers continue to turn back to nature to support their health and wellbeing, the prospects for the global propolis market are attractive. Calculations of the size and growth prospects of the global propolis market vary widely but one of the more conservative figures forecasts the market reaching US$127.04m by 2023.
“Mānuka Health’s BIO™ Propolis is a great example of the highly concentrated bioactives that come from New Zealand’s unique environment. Mānuka Health has worked in partnership with Callaghan Innovation to unlock the powerful bioactivity in New Zealand propolis for natural health benefits,” says Boase.
“Callaghan Innovation are an important partner for us as we continue our R&D programme to understand more and more about the unique bioactive properties of bee products and how they can act as a natural health support for human wellbeing.”
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Updated: 22 May 2020