Ethnopharmacological Study of Medicinal Plants in New South Wales

N. Brouwer, Q. Liu, D. Harrington, M. Collins, J. Kohen, S. Vemulpad, J. Jamie


[intro] [from traditional to modern medicine] [ ethnobotanical study] [database] [biological and chemical investigations] [extraction and isolation] [antimicrobial assays] [neurological assays] [results] [acknowledgements]

[ Joanne Jamie ]   [ Jim Kohen ]   [ Subra Vemulpad ]   [ Macquarie University ]

The Australian Aboriginal people have used plants as medicine for thousands of years and have a vast reservoir of knowledge of Australia’s unique flora. However, this traditional knowledge is poorly documented and is in danger of being lost, especially in southern and eastern Australia due to dislocation and greater westernisation of Aboriginal communities. This project aims to preserve the traditional knowledge of NSW Aboriginal communities and to provide information that can be used for their cultural and educational purposes, as well as for the wider scientific community. It will also aid the discovery of new medicinal agents and lead to a greater understanding of Australia’s biodiversity.

This project is an unique collaboration between Aboriginal communities and researchers in the fields of Environmental Law, Indigenous Studies, Ethnobotany, Natural Products and Medicinal Chemistry and Microbiology. Its goals are to:
  • provide training for members of the communities in fieldwork, interviewing techniques, mapping and some laboratory work
  • encourage the communities to participate in all aspects of the project, including documentation of the knowledge and the biological and chemical investigations
  • allow Aboriginal communities to be instrumental in discovering new medicinal agents
  • assist the understanding of biodiversity and aid the conservation of medicinal plants

Aboriginal Australia

© David Horton, AIATSIS

All scientific data (ethnobotanical information and biological and chemical studies) are shared with the communities. The acknowledgement of the indigenous intellectual properties rights is ensured.

from traditional to modern medicine

Approximately 25% of all pharmaceutical products worldwide are originated from traditional medicinal knowledge and there is widespread interest in developing new types of medicinal agents with greater potency and reduced side effects. Traditional Aboriginal knowledge is of key importance in such drug discovery activities. When using traditional medicinal plants in research, the success rate of isolating bio-active compounds is significantly higher than random screening.
The importance of traditional knowledge systems in the drug discovery process is exemplified by the isolation of artemisinin from the herb sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua or Qing Ho). This plant was used in traditional Chinese herbal medicine for over 2,000 years for the treatment of fever and malaria, and was rediscovered  by   Chinese   scientists   in   the   1970’s.  The   active  compound, artemisinin, can be isolated from the leaves and is a fast acting and life-saving drug against malaria parasites and works even against the multi-drug resistant P. falciparum. Of 30 species of Artemisia, only A. annua was used in traditional Chinese medicine and is the only species that has antimalarial activity.
Artemisia annua
Kangaroo apple 

An example of an Australian traditional medicinal plant, is the kangaroo apple (Solanum):

  • saponins in the leaves, stems or unripe berries easily converted to steroids
  • one of the world's major sources of steroids
  • used in contraceptives and anti-inflammatory products
  • S. alviculare and S. lanciniatum leaves give highest yield
  • native to Australia but no local steroid industry
  • most plantations can be found in the former Soviet Union and Hungary

part 1: ethnobotanical study

Ethnobotany is the study of plant resources by indigenous societies, and includes plants used for food, fiber, timber, medicine or ceremony. This project focuses particularly on plants used for medicine and aims to fully document the knowledge of the involved communities. This is done by interviewing local Aboriginal people with specific knowledge of traditional medicinal plants. Plants are collected from the field, under the guidance of Aboriginal advisers, vouchered and taxonomically identified.

Dave Harrington and Jim Kohen


The ethnobotanical data of each community is documented and entered in separate databases. The databases contain information on:
  • the genus and species names
  • the common English and Aboriginal names
  • description of the plants
  • medicinal use in literature and by the communities
  • preparation in literature and communities
  • previous chemical and biological studies carried out
  • collection data
Since these databases reflect traditional knowledge they are password protected with restricted access, based on the communities’ wishes.

Qian Liu, Nynke Brouwer, Subra Vemulpad and Joanne Jamie

part 2: biological and chemical investigations

Plants used by the communities that show significant medicinal potential are being investigated further for their biologically active compounds, using bio-assay guided fractionation. Particular attention is placed on plants traditionally used to treat:

  • bacterial or fungal infections

  • conditions derived from neurological disturbances

Antimicrobial resistance is a major problem worldwide; it is reducing the therapeutic value of existing antimicrobials and makes the search for novel antimicrobial agents important. Depression and other neurological conditions are on the rise and new treatments would be of significant value.

extraction and isolation

There are numerous methods available to extract plant material:

  • single organic solvents

  • series of solvents of increasing polarity (hexane, DCM, ethanol, water)

  • specific compounds (eg. alkaloids or tannins)

Most importantly in this project however, is the preparation of the plant material in a way similar to the preparation in the communities, since this will validate the traditional use.



 Extracts showing activity following the bio-assays will be subjected to chromatographic techniques such as:
  • column chromatography
  • preparative TLC
  • HPLC
  • LC / MS
  • NMR


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page created by: Nynke Brouwer
last updated: 30.01.2004