Traditional knowledge validated by scientific testing

Having the therapeutic properties of mānuka validated by independent scientific research has given East Coast company Tairawhiti Pharmaceuticals Limited the credibility and confidence to establish a global business.

The company has been working with New Zealand research organisations, including Cawthron and Plant & Food Research, for 20 years.

From its base in Te Araroa, Tairawhiti Pharmaceuticals produces a range of raw materials, including mānuka and kanuka oil, which it sells to other companies as the basis for added value products. It also channels some of the raw material to its own subsidiary company, Natural Solutions Ltd which makes treatments for foot, hair and skin care and consumer items such as mānuka honey and mānuka tea. The company’s products are sold in New Zealand, Western Europe, North America and Asia.

The mānuka tree was used extensively by Māori and early European settlers as a medicinal plant for treating a wide range of conditions including fevers, head colds, infections, bruises, burns and sleeplessness. Mānuka oil, however, had never been extracted.

But New Zealanders were familiar with the therapeutic properties of oil from the Australian tea tree. Although that tree doesn’t grow in New Zealand, its oil was a basic item in many first aid kits and was also being used for animal health applications such as treating ticks and fleas in dogs and horses.

Seeing the benefits to be gained from Australian tea tree oil was one of the drivers behind a decision by two separate groups - Māori charitable trust Te Atara Rapumahi and industrial engineer, Mark Kerr - to start investigating the commercial potential of East Coast Mānuka.

As part of their research, they had samples of the mānuka oil tested by the DSIR, the forerunner of New Zealand’s crown research institutes, followed by additional testing at independent researcher the Cawthron Institute. It was the first time anyone in the world had tested the efficacy of mānuka oil.

The results showed that mānuka oil from the East Coast area had a very distinct chemical profile and antimicrobial properties far greater than Australian tea tree oil or mānuka oil from other parts of New Zealand. The research concluded that East Coast Mānuka oil was 20 to 30 times more active than Australian tea tree oil for gram positive bacteria.

The findings provided the incentive for both Te Atara Rapumahi and Mark Kerr to progress the development of businesses based around mānuka oil.

They began working with Plant & Food Research, back then known as Crop & Food Research. Noel Porter from Crop & Food played a pivotal role in suggesting the two parties combine resources to develop a sustainable operation.

Together, they established Tairawhiti Pharmaceuticals in 1991 and a year later built a plant in Te Araroa to extract oil from mānuka plants.

A wide range of expertise was needed to turn their business idea into a reality. That included knowledge about which type of mānuka produces the highest quality oil and optimum growing conditions.

They also needed to know more about oils chemistry and understand how processing, packaging and storage affected oil quality.

In 1993, Crop & Food Research came on board as a partner - the research organisation and Tairawhiti Pharmaceuticals signed a joint venture agreement which was to underpin developments over the next ten years.

Crop & Food carried out further research into Manuka oil antimicrobial activity and specific applications for the oil, experimented with combining mānuka oil with other things, investigated properties of the mānuka leaf, and helped the company develop processing technologies.

Research continues today with Crop & Food’s successor, Plant & Food Research, helping the company with quality control of its Manuka oil products.

Mark Kerr, Managing Director with Tairawhiti Pharmaceuticals, says a key commercial benefit of the research partnership is having robust product information about the company’s products and the unique properties of East Coast Mānuka oil.

“That is an important part of what sets our products apart in the international market. Validation from an independent and respected research agency gives our products credibility.”

Tairawhiti’s pioneering research into the properties of mānuka oil has also had international spin-offs. Researchers in a number of other countries, including Germany, Korea and Japan, have further validated the New Zealand work and explored other potential uses for Manuka oil such as oral applications as well as its use in combination with antibiotics.

While commercial success is important for Tairawhiti Pharmaceuticals, other measures of achievement are also high on their priority list.

The company has consistently provided employment on the East Coast through hiring people to harvest mānuka and work at the factory and the associated café it runs.

It is also committed to good environmental management, and uses harvesting and management practices that are sustainable and encourage natural regeneration of the mānuka trees in the wild.

As well as making an economic and environmental contribution, Mark Kerr says the company is also improving wellbeing with its products leading to renewed enthusiasm for using tea tree oil – although this time from New Zealand - in the region.

“We believe there is plenty of untapped potential in the product,” says Mark. “Mānuka oil is a complex mixture of over 120 natural compounds. We know some of the benefits of this product but many more are as yet unknown.”

Mark says the business is growing steadily with demand for the company’s products currently outstripping supply. “That gives us the confidence to invest more in expanding our facility and, further down the track, diversifying into producing other natural products.”

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Tairawhiti Pharmaceuticals Ltd
ph: +6468644824