Dr Graham Matheson, an emergency doctor based in Sydney and born in the Cook Islands works for Cook Islands Medical Technologies, which is launching a range of cosmetics based on local plants soon, and which is researching bone regeneration.
He says local tribal elders, the Koutu Nui, are now one of the biggest shareholders in CIMTECH.
Dr Matheson tells Bruce Hill that involving indigenous communities in developing traditional medicines and practice for use by pharmaceutical companies overseas makes sense both financially and ethically.
Correpondent: Bruce Hill
Speaker: Dr Graham Matheson, chief scientific officer for Cook Islands Medical Technologies
MATHESON: We approached this problem from a first principles basis that it needed to be done correctly, with respect for the traditional knowledge and the traditional owners. The company originated out of a collaborative agreement with the Koutu Nui of the Cook Islands and myself from the University of New South Wales. We jointly developed and owned the technology that CIMTECH is now commerciallising and its first commercial products that is a skincare range, Te Tika, meaning Truth and Integrity in Cook Islands Maori was launched earlier this year in August.
HILL: Well, those are beauty products, what about things like pharmaceuticals which obviously would have to meet a much high standard of proof as to their efficacy ?
MATHESON: We have three programs running continuously at the moment, the first is the skincare program, which was just launched this year. We have two separate technology platforms, one is skin regeneration and one in bone regeneration, both of which have clinical applications that we are working towards and as you pointed out, they do take a lot longer with high level of evidence to get to market and we're confident of getting there. It will take a few more years though.
HILL: What kind of efficacy do some of these traditional medicines have, because sometimes they can just be old wives tales, but often it's turned out that there is a degree of truth to it. The people have worked out that certain plants have certain qualities and have worked this out over a number of years and it actually can surprise Western researchers to find out that what sounds like myths and legends, there's actually some truth to them?
MATHESON: That's absolutely correct. We found that there was more than an element to truth to it. We started researching a single remedy, which involved multiple plants that was aimed at regenerating injury. We actually found two separate technologies within that same methody. One separate group of plants regenerated skin and a separate group of plants regenerated bone, so there was more than a hint of truth to it and the effects were clinically quite remarkable. I have every expectation that they will transform the way we treat regenerative problems in Western medicine when we finish developing these products.
HILL: There have been accusations in the past that some Western pharamaceuticals have gone around places like the Pacific and South America and Africa and kind of plundered this local knowledge, grabbed it and used it for themselves and the local people don't get any compensation for it. You're trying to take the opposite approach, I imagine?
MATHESON: We have taken the opposite approach and the history of pharmaceutical companies approaching it in that manner was something we addressed right at the very start before any research ever began. The discussion around how to control, protect and to develop the traditional knowledge with the full participation and support and understanding of the traditional owners was paramount to beginning the program and has actually become essential to the continuation of it. So we took a very different approach and we believe that we're setting an example that the rest of the world is now looking at following on here at the Oceania By Discovery Forum in Brisbane, where today I'll be presenting our case as an example of access and benefit sharing that the rest of the world will actually be looking at to see if they can emulate in some manner.
HILL: That sort of approach is coming onstream more and more often. But occasionally from time to time, some of the traditional owners with this knowledge, someone's got a somewhat inflated sense of the value of this and I've heard of a couple of examples of people holding out for millions-and-millions of dollars in compensation for something that's not really worth quite that much?
MATHESON: That can occur the Koutu Nui of the Cook Islands, we had this discussion at the beginning that that although the end product of some biotechnology research can certainly be very, very lucrative. The costs involved in generating it are extreme and the risks involved of not getting any return on your investment is also extremely high and that the value of your knowledge is determined at the start, not at the end.
As you pointed out, some traditional communities may have held out or requested compensation in the millions of dollars for programs that they didn't actively involve themselves in developing albeit the pharmaceutical companies didn't take the direct approach to begin with. There can be an expectation of green gold which certainly needs to be tempered right at the outset and that's a part of informed consent in research and development and that's something that we're trying to discuss and express in a form that the other countries can follow as well.