By John Kerr 19/08/2016 1


“The world currently faces a critical shortage of therapeutic drugs to treat disorders such as bacterial infections and chronic pain”, says scientist Dr Eric Buenz. “The New Zealand bush may have the answers.”

Eric has highlighted his search for new drugs in a video entered into Thinkable’s ‘180 Seconds of Science’ competition, sponsored by the Royal Society of New Zealand.

“New Zealand is very special place. Because of its geological history and geographic isolation it has relatively high level of biodiversity,” says Eric.

Plant-based drug discovery in New Zealand on Vimeo.

Most recently, Eric’s work has focused on compounds extracted from the ongaonga plant – the most exciting plant he has ever worked on. Ironically, this native stinging nettle may contain a new treatment for chronic pain associated with diseases such as diabetes, leprosy, Guillain-Barré syndrome and other autoimmune diseases.

 Ongaonga (Urtica ferox) is a New Zealand tree nettle and a possible source of new medicines. Skin contact with the hairs is very painful.
Ongaonga (Urtica ferox) is a New Zealand tree nettle. Skin contact with the hairs is very painful.

Based at the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology, Eric is working with the prestigious US-based Mayo Clinic (where he completed his PhD) to analyse the medicinal properties of the plant extracts and identify possible compounds for further development as medicines.

Traditional medicine important

In the video, Rōpata Taylor, General Manager, People and Culture at Wakatu Corporation notes the important role traditional medicine plays in understanding the healing properties of native plants.

“It is a knowledge, that has been passed down from generation to generation and developed over a long period of time, about what is safe and what benefits will come from certain plants at different times of the year. Those are all aspects of Rongoā – that indigenous understanding of medicine found in the plants and species that surround us.”

Landcare Research highlights several traditional medicinal uses of the ongaonga plant, including boiling its bark with kawakawa leaves to be used as a treatment for eczema and venereal disease.

Painful discovery

Eric’s interest in ongaonga began when he accidentally brushed against the plant while out hunting in the bush. He described it to Stuff.co.nz:

“It was this crazy, burning sensation and I thought ‘what the hell?’.

What particularly got Buenz’s scientific senses tingling in the bush was not the sting from the poisonous spines of the ongaonga but the numbing aftermath. It’s not common to get such an effect on the nervous system from a substance that is only applied to the skin.

“I can’t think of anything else that’s like that,” Buenz said. “It’s rare to find something that’s so potentially powerful that hasn’t been examined.”

180 Seconds of Science

180 Seconds of Science is a competition for  Early and Mid-Career Researchers offering them the chance to highlight their research in short videos. The public can vote for their favorite videos online, but be quick – voting closes the 22nd August 2016.

Check out the full list of entries from New Zealand below:

Special thanks to Kimberley Collins for highlighting the competition and collecting the New Zealand-based links.

Feature image: Flickr / Joan Campderrós-i-Canas


One Response to “New medicines hiding in New Zealand forests”

  • Interesting article and hopefully this leads to some helpful treatments. Just wondering what sort of engagement with the government or Maori groups there has been about access rights or benefits that might result from the use of the plant?