Researchers at the University of Otago's Wellington School of Medicine are working on a possible treatment for melanoma
derived from a Vietnamese herb.
The herb came to their attention through an NZAID project that aims to save endangered medicinal plants and develop
sustainable incomes for Vietnamese hill tribes, whose people are among the poorest in Asia. NZAID is New Zealand's
international aid and development agency.
The company behind the project, Forest Herbs Research Ltd of Nelson, has registered a provisional patent to protect the
intellectual property of the project for the benefit of the hill tribes, and is exploring options for commercializing
Director of Forest Herbs, Peter Butler said the find was unexpected:
"We certainly weren't looking for a cure for cancer," he said. "We went into this aid project three years ago aiming to
save rare plants and help these remote villagers - if the Wellington research confirms its early promise we could have a
major success that will be a life changer for the poorest farmers around Sa Pa."
Mr Butler said the patent for the melanoma treatment will be assigned to a collective of the hill tribes people in the
Sa Pa district, which is near the Chinese border.
"The plant with the anti-melanoma properties is a very rare tuber that is found at high altitudes in the forest," he
said. "Through the Medicinal Plants Innovation Project (a joint venture between Forest Herbs and International Flora and
Fauna from the UK) methods have been developed to propagate and cultivate the plant to protect the wild stock, and to
provide a viable base for an industry."
The tuber of the plant Stephania brachyandra has been used traditionally for many purposes, including as a relaxant and
sleep aid. However, the findings of its anti-melanoma properties are new. Dr Paul Davis, who heads the Biological
Investigation Group (BIG) at the Wellington School of Medicine and Health Sciences is supervising a series of trials
through the rest of this year to corroborate the initial laboratory results.
Mr Butler said the discovery vindicated NZAID's support for the project. "We (Forest Herbs Research Ltd) went to them on
the basis of our success with the New Zealand herb Horopito, that we've developed into the international anti-yeast line
Kolorex," he said. "NZAID were convinced that our model was transferable, and our experience over the last three years
confirms this. We supply our expertise on a non-profit basis because it's satisfying work and good for the profile of
The Forest Herbs' team in Vietnam, managed by international consultant Dr Chris Wheatley, has some other exciting
prospects among the plants of the northern hills of Sa Pa. The aid project has funded a commercial essential oil still,
set up on one of the communes to produce oils from traditional herbs that showed promise in early trials.
Mr Butler said that one of these, a fast-growing member of the mint family, Elsholtzia penduliflora, has excellent
"Traditionally it's been rubbed into sore muscles," he said. "We've got Carol Priest Natural Cosmetics putting it into a
massage cream and a Vietnamese company planning to market a similar product to the Western backpackers who trek in
northern Vietnam. There is also demand from international Fair Trade organisations, that will be supplied when
Forest Herbs Research Ltd This privately owned company has spent 15 years researching the medicinal properties of New
Zealand's indigenous flora. Its commercial success has been with Pseudowintera colorata (Horopito) from which it has
developed an intimate anti-yeast cream, an athletes foot cream and various oral anti-Candida presentations. They are all
marketed internationally under the Kolorex brand and have become the leading anti-yeast natural products in Italy.
Forest Herbs has the only plantation of active Horopito.
Bioactivity Investigation Group The Bioactivity Investigation Group (BIG) is a research unit within the Wellington
School of Medicine and Health Sciences, one of University of Otago's three clinical schools. BIG provides research
services and expertise to identify, characterize, evaluate and develop natural health, nutriceutical and health food
products, food supplements as well as pharmaceutical products. BIG has been involved in the research and development of
a number of natural products that have been commercially successful.
NZAID NZAID is the New Zealand government's international aid and development agency. New Zealand's aid helps to
eliminate poverty and creates a safe and just world, particularly in our own neighbourhood of the Pacific. We also
support projects in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Fauna & Flora International (FFI) Founded in 1903, FFI is the world's longest established international conservation body. It
is one of the few organizations whose remit is to protect the entire spectrum of endangered plant and animal species on
the planet. FFI provides support to conservation initiatives throughout the world, in the form of partnerships,
technical assistance, direct funding and consultancy.