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Harnessing honey's healing power

8 June 04 23:15 GMT
By Angie Knox

Honey has been known for its healing properties for thousands of years - the Ancient Greeks used it, and so have many other peoples through the ages.

Even up to the second world war, honey was being used for its antibacterial properties in treating wounds.

But with the advent of penicillin and other antibiotic drugs in the twentieth century, honey's medicinal qualities have taken a back seat.

But that might be about to change - thanks to one New Zealand based researcher.

Working in his Honey Research Unit at the University of Waikato, in the central North Island, biochemist Professor Peter Molan has identified one particular type of honey with extraordinary healing qualities.

Professor Molan has shown that honey made from the flowers of the manuka bush, a native of New Zealand, has antibacterial properties over and above those of other honeys.

Mystery ingredient

He said: "In all honeys, there is - to different levels - hydrogen peroxide produced from an enzyme that bees add to the nectar.

"In manuka honey, and its close relative which grows in Australia called jellybush, there's something else besides the hydrogen peroxide.

"And there's nothing like that ever been found anywhere else in the world."

That "something else" has proved very hard to pin down. Even now, after more than twenty years of research, Peter Molan admits he still has no idea exactly what it is.

But he has given it a name: unique manuka factor, or UMF.

And he has found a way to measure its antibacterial efficacy, by comparing UMF manuka honey with a standard antiseptic (carbolic, or phenol) in its ability to fight bacteria. The results are astonishing.

He said: "We know it has a very broad spectrum of action.

"It works on bacteria, fungi, protozoa. We haven't found anything it doesn't work on among infectious organisms."

Resistant strains

In fact, he says UMF manuka honey can even tackle antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria - a growing problem for hospitals around the world.

"Staphylococcus aureas is the most common wound-infecting species of bacteria, and that's the most sensitive to honey that we've found.

"And that includes the antibiotic resistant strains - the MRSA - which is just as sensitive to honey as any other staphylococcus aureas."

Clinical trials at the Waikato Hospital have shown that even out of the lab, UMF manuka honey has amazing healing properties.

Nurse practitioner Julie Betts has successfully used honey to treat leg ulcers and pressure sores. And she says it helps healing after surgery - particularly for diabetic patients.

"It has an anti-inflammatory effect as well, so if I want to do several things apart from actually controlling the bacteria in that wound, then that's when I'll use honey."

Cancer treatment

Cancer specialist Dr Glenys Round has also found honey to be an effective treatment.

"We've been using honey to treat fungating wounds, where the cancer has broken through the skin," she said.

"The results in that situation have been excellent."

Most recently, she has had success in using honey dressings on patients with wounds or ulcers resulting from radiation therapy.

"Most of these patients in the past had tried various other conventional treatments without good success, and that is the reason why at least initially honey was tried."

Most patients seem happy to try the honey treatment.

"They don't have a problem with it at all," said Julie Betts.

"Humans in general have a fondness I think for natural remedies, so they're quite happy to use them."

"I think the problem we encounter is when people don't understand how it works.

"They think that sourcing any honey will achieve the same outcome, and that's not always true."

Worldwide export

That's a view shared by beekeeper Bill Bennett a few kilometres up the road from the hospital.

He and his wife Margaret run the Summerglow Apiaries, one of just a handful of registered suppliers of UMF manuka honey in New Zealand.

They produce between eight and twelve metric tonnes of manuka honey every year, and sell it across the world.

The honey is rigorously tested three times during production for that elusive unique manuka factor; only then can it carry the label "UMF manuka honey".

"It just seems that manuka from a few areas within New Zealand produces a nectar that has this special property," said Bill Bennett.

"There is a lot of manuka honey out there that doesn't have this special property. That's why it's so important to look for the name UMF."

Now, a New Zealand natural health products company Comvita is taking UMF manuka honey one step further.


Comvita has set up a new medical products division to take hi-tech honey dressings developed by Peter Molan to the international market.

The new dressings have been designed to take the mess out of honey.

"It's like a sheet of rubber, you can touch it without it being sticky at all," he said.

Comvita has high hopes for the new product.

"Previously untreatable wounds of many types are now found to be treatable by honey," said Comvita's Ray Lewis.

"The global market for wound care is in the range of two to six billion US dollars. So if we can capture just a small percentage of that, we will obviously be doing very well."

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