Scientists delve into the healing power of manuka honey

Health & Science

Comvita has formed a new scientific partnership with the University of Otago to understand how mānuka honey helps support digestive health | Content partnership

Comvita, New Zealand’s pioneering mānuka honey brand and global market leader have formed a new scientific partnership with the University of Otago’s departments of Medicine and Human Nutrition to understand how mānuka honey helps support digestive health.

The partnership will conduct groundbreaking research through a $ 1.3 million clinical trial to invest the potential of manuka honey to improve symptoms and quality of life in people suffering from gastrointestinal inflammation and pain related to digestive disorders.

The program is supported by the High-Value Nutrition (HVN) Ko Ngā Kai Whai Painga National Science Challenge, a Government initiative “to develop high-value foods with validated health benefits to drive economic growth”.

The researchers will look at the impact of manuka honey on inflammation, immune cell function and the micro-organisms in the gut. The program builds on Comvita’s industry leading scientific research, including the work with the University of Auckland that led to the discovery of the unique manuka honey compound lepteridine in 2014.

Comvita lepteridine is a natural compound, trademarked by the company, which it has used for many years to test its mānuka honey for purity and authenticity. More recently, its scientific research has focused on understanding its unique bioactive properties.

The digestive health research project will be delivered in collaboration with the University of Otago over two years. It is being led by Dr Jody Miller and Professor Nicole Roy from the Department of Human Nutrition, alongside the university’s Department of Medicine, the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research in Wellington, the Riddet Institute at Massey University, and Dr Jackie Evans of Comvita.

A mystery healer

Miller, a senior research fellow, says while there is scientific evidence that mānuka honey is an effective topical treatment for wounds and burns, the potential health benefits of consuming mānuka honey are less well understood.

“Chinese consumers in particular use mānuka honey to soothe digestive symptoms, but how it really works is unknown. New bioactivity research conducted by Comvita with the Riddet Institute and Plant and Food Research points to lepteridine as playing a key role in the inhibition of enzymes involved in the development of gastrointestinal inflammation, ulceration and pain, ”Miller says.

“This clinical trial will help us to understand how Comvita’s manuka honey with standardized levels of this compound may improve digestive health and how it acts in the body.”

While there is scientific evidence that mānuka honey is an effective topical treatment for wounds and burns, the potential health benefits of consuming mānuka honey are less well understood. “
Dr. Jody Miller, University of Otago

Comvita Chief Science Officer Dr Jackie Evans says up to a third of the adult population is impacted by digestive discomfort, whether it be pain and burning, or excessive belching and nausea after eating, sometimes called dyspepsia.

Gut inflammatory conditions, including stomach ulcers, dyspepsia and inflammatory bowel disease have a variety of causes including auto-immune disorders and environmental factors such as stress, poor diet, lack of sleep, alcohol and some pathogens.

Inflammation of the gut is often associated with alterations in the gut microbiome, which can impact the absorption and metabolism of nutrients from food.

Comvita researchers are excited by the prospect of a natural, food-based treatment for some gut ailments. Photo: Supplied

Scientific research shows mānuka honey may support digestive health through a combination of anti-inflammatory properties, Evans says.

“Dyspepsia causes a range of symptoms that can really impair the quality of life, causing increased work absenteeism, reduced productivity, and greater use of healthcare services – and often there is no obvious cause or cure.

“Hence, there is a considerable unmet health need to develop and test new therapeutic approaches or ways of relieving these health issues. Working at the forefront of science for Comvita, to potentially deliver a natural food-based cure to such a widespread condition is very exciting. ”

A long history of scientific research

Comvita has been heading mānuka honey research alongside expert scientists and clinicians from leading NZ and international universities and research Institutes for more than two decades, supporting more than 10 students through their Doctorate and Masters’ degrees and publishing its findings in multiple, peer-reviewed scientific journals, Evans says

Associate Professor Kerry Loomes at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland, is interested in early-stage drug discovery and identifying biological targets for disease. He recalls with excitement the moment his team first identified the signal for Comvita lepteridine back in 2014, using fluorescence analysis.

“Around 60 percent of all medicines are based on compounds found in nature. Nature reveals the structure, then we have to synthesize it in the lab, that’s the hard bit. “
Ladies Margaret Brimble

“I remember when my laboratory manager came into my office and she said“ There’s a new compound here, and it’s only present in mānuka honey samples! ”

Within a few months Loomes says she had collected enough of the compound from the honey samples to begin to work out its molecular structure.

Then a PhD student working for Rutherford-medal winning Distinguished Professor Dame Margaret Brimble went on to confirm the structure of the lepteridine.

The student analyzed the mānuka honey fraction, separated lepteridine from related compounds, and synthesized the pure compound in the laboratory, confirming it was a match.

Rutherford-medal winning Distinguished Professor Dame Margaret Brimble. Photo: Supplied

Dame Margaret, whose research focuses on the discovery of natural compounds from flora and fauna for drug development, says the ultimate goal has been to progress the research to a clinical study.

“Around 60 percent of all medicines are based on compounds found in nature. Nature reveals the structure, then we have to synthesize it in the lab, that’s the hard bit. To fully study a compound that is derived from nature we need to be able to create it in the laboratory so we can rigorously evaluate its bioactivity. ” she says.

Evans says Comvita is committed to investing in world class scientific research to understand mānuka honey’s unique properties, and helping to improve the lives of people around the world. She expects the findings of the latest research will allow Comvita to develop new honey products for millions of people worldwide who suffer from poor digestive health.

The vexed question of sugar

Creating a new product and validating its efficacy is one thing, but being able to market it successfully to those in need is another. The difference between promoting honey honey as a medicine versus a food is significant. Although you would think clinical evidence would be enough to make health claims, the very sweetness of honey creates a problem.

“Food regulations currently don’t allow us to sell manuka honey as a health food, because of its high sugar content. Of course, not all sugars are equal, and the small portion size also needs to be taken into consideration. Some of the sugars found in manuka honey may even support a healthy gut microbiome, ”Evans says.

Changing the way we think about honey

Still, a significant change in thinking by multiple parties is needed before mānuka honey is accepted by all as a healthy food product and an efficacious treatment, alongside conventional medicines, in New Zealand and overseas, Evans says.

The key is to deliver high quality clinical evidence to enable clinicians and gastroenterologists to understand the why and how of manuka honey’s healing properties.

Comvita holds a number of patents granted or pending for manuka honey extracts and components, including for Comvita lepteridine discovery and synthesis, its bioactive properties and its use for the treatment of gastrointestinal and other inflammatory disorders.

The key is to deliver high quality clinical evidence to enable clinicians and gastroenterologists to understand the why and how of manuka honey’s healing properties.
Dr. Jackie Evans, Comvita

“Having a strong proprietary position means we have a clear path to commercialization of our research findings that supports our ongoing investment in research,” Evans says.

“Nearly 50 years ago, Comvita was founded on the belief that food was the best medicine and that nature has the answers. This latest scientific research carries on these principles, connecting people in need to nature’s healing power. “

This is the final story in a Newsroom content series with Comvita

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