The Aboriginal peoples of Australia have immense knowledge of native plants and their uses. This knowledge has been accumulated for over 50,000 years. Our research area, working with Indigenous groups, is focused on the ethical and culturally appropriate study of Aboriginal plant medicines and foods, sharing Aboriginal and Western scientific understandings, identification of therapeutic compounds and the measurement of their effect. Through our work, we have sought to develop a model for native plant research that is locally initiated and driven by Aboriginal peoples with the potential to improve health outcomes and provide social, cultural and economic benefits.

Kuuku I’yu medicine and food projects

 For over 10 years, researchers in the Knowledge Transfer Stream of the Quality Use of Medicines and Pharmacy Research Centre have worked with the Chuulangun Aboriginal Corporation on a collaborative project entitled ‘The Kuuku I’yu Medicinal Plants Project’. This project has woven together both Aboriginal and Western scientific knowledge and approaches to understand the medicinal properties and healing potential of some plant species used in Aboriginal medicine. This project was initiated and driven by the Corporation, which represents traditional owner families of the Kuuku I’yu homelands in central Cape York Peninsula, Queensland, and which manages a Federally-funded Indigenous Protected Area over part of these homelands.

The diverse natural resources of the Kuuku I’yu homelands and the detailed traditional ecological knowledge held by its people represent a huge opportunity for the Chuulangun Aboriginal Corporation to address issues of social disadvantage, economic hardship and loss of connection to country. The outputs of this project have included joint patent applications between Chuulangun Aboriginal Corporation and University of South Australia over plant bioactive compounds (now granted in Australia, Europe and the US), jointly authored publications and conference presentations by researchers from both organisations including journal articles, a book chapter and invited conference presentations. The project has also contributed content to undergraduate teaching in programs across Pharmacy and Medical Science to increase awareness of issues around Indigenous knowledge and historical perspectives on Aboriginal health. The project is underpinned by a jointly developed Collaborative Research Agreement which has been recognised as a model for collaborative partnerships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal researchers in the area of medicinal plants research. The project has been used as a case study by Intellectual Property Australia in a publication by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO - an agency of the United Nations) and a recently published paper examining recognition of Indigenous knowledge in the commercialisation of plants In Australia.

The Kuuku I’yu Project is ongoing, and has recently been expanded to also examine the therapeutic potential of Kuuku I’yu traditional plant foods for chronic diseases with funding through the University of South Australia’s Research Themes Investment Scheme (RTIS).

Desert-loving Therapeutics

We are also part of the ‘Desert-loving Therapeutics’ project team. Led by Professor Birger Møller of the Plant Biochemistry Laboratory at the University of Copenhagen, this interdisciplinary project brings together botany, taxonomy, evolutionary phylogeny, plant chemistry and pharmacology to understand the chemistry and bioactivity of the Australian plant genus Eremophila. Thorough this project we are looking at developing models of equitable benefit-sharing with Aboriginal communities and the mechanisms to fund projects driven by Indigenous communities and organisations.