Hunting for honey’s healing powers
20 Jun, 2012
Scientists from New Zealand have recently identified key compounds in honey that stimulate the immune system, paving the way for a range of new wound-healing products.
Different honey varieties trigger different immune responses
The collaborative research by New Zealand-based natural health and beauty company Comvita, Industrial Research Ltd (IRL), Plant & Food Research and Massey University found that different varieties of New Zealand honey appear to trigger different immune responses.
“We know a lot about the antimicrobial properties of mānuka honey but had much less scientific information about the immune system-related effects of honey in wound healing,” says Comvita’s Chief Technology Officer Dr Ralf Schlothauer.
“The findings suggest there could be a number of honeys to consider if you want to stimulate the immune system. Ultimately, it might mean we produce medical honey products that are specifically tailored for certain treatments or that we select a range of honeys for their particular properties to include in a specific blend.”
Analysing carbohydrate molecules in honey
Prior to this research, Dr Schlothauer says other published research had shown there were big carbohydrate molecules in honey that stimulated immune cells but their structure had not been analysed.
“We started separating the molecule but were puzzled about what it was. Initially we thought it was a glycan and sought appropriate analysis, but they put us on to Dr Ian Sims in the Carbohydrate Chemistry group at IRL, who is a leading expert in analysing complex molecules that play an important role in biological systems,” says Dr Schlothauer.
IRL has one of only three laboratories worldwide with the capability and expertise required to carry out complex research into the extraction, purification and analysis of oligo- and poly-saccharides and glycoconjugates.
The IRL team started with small-scale analyses on mānuka, kānuka and clover honeys. Starting with 5 grams of honey, separation of high molecular weight polymers from small sugars yielded just a few milligrams of sample for analysis.
After Dr Sims completed an initial, detailed analysis of the sugars, student Gregor Steinhorn, who now works full-time for Comvita, spent many hours purifying buckets of honey and identified its exact nature under the supervision of Dr Sims and Dr Alistair Carr from Massey University.
More research to understand how honey promotes healing
Dr Schlothauer says the next challenge is to better understand how and why honey promotes healing, with Comvita planning to do more research with the University of Auckland and IRL.
“The work is helping us ensure there is much better information about natural medicines,” says Dr Schlothauer. “We need to be able to talk about the immune relevance of honey and have proof of its scientific efficacy to ensure natural medicines can sit alongside conventional health products.”
The findings from the research have been published in Food Chemistry, an international peer-reviewed publication that reports on the chemistry and biochemistry of foods and raw materials.
Comvita is currently determining the commercial value of this discovery and has a range of new products under development.
- 20 June 2012