MRINZ: Study finds kānuka oil product effective for eczema

skin care

Kānuka oil has demonstratable anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties used to address conditions such as urinary infections, coughs, colds, back pain, burns and scalds, and various skin conditions. Photo: Pavel Danilyuk, Pexels.

The first clinical trial looking at the topical use of kānuka oil for eczema relief, has shown that a cream containing oil derived from native kānuka is an effective emollient for treatment of moderate-to-severe eczema in adults.

Results published in the prestigious Lancet Group’s eClinicalMedicine Journal have shown adding kānuka oil to an emollient cream made it more effective at reducing eczema symptoms than the cream alone.

This landmark trial, led by the Medical Research Institute of New Zealand (MRINZ), was conducted in partnership with Aotearoa New Zealand enterprises Hikurangi Bioactives Limited Partnership (HBLP) and TRG Natural Pharmaceuticals. HBLP is a social enterprise committed to creating jobs and economic development for Māori communities in the Tairāwhiti region, working in partnership with the indigenous guardians of natural resources, and TRG Natural Pharmaceuticals, based in Tauranga, develops innovative, scientifically proven products from natural sources.

Lead study author, and MRINZ PhD student, Nick Shortt says this research presents those suffering from eczema with an evidence-based alternative to standard emollients.

“It’s brilliant to be working closely in collaboration with New Zealand biotechnology companies committed to undertaking research on the efficacy and safety of the natural health products they’re developing,” says Nick, “Emollients are often the first step in managing the symptoms of eczema. They help to soothe and protect the skin which reduces the frequency of symptom flare ups and the need for topical steroids. By adding 3% kānuka oil to emollient cream, we’ve shown a significant reduction in eczema symptoms.”

Eczema is a chronic condition that causes skin to become dry, red, and itchy. Eczema damages the skin barrier function which makes the skin more sensitive and prone to infection and dryness. If left untreated, it can adversely reduce quality of life, significantly affecting sleep patterns and impacting everyday activities.

Eczema affects one in three New Zealanders at some stage throughout their lives. It is particularly common among young New Zealanders, occurring in 15% of children and 9% of adolescents, with eczema more common among young Māori and Pacific peoples.

The study ‘Efficacy of a 3% kānuka oil cream for the treatment of moderate-to-severe eczema: A single blind randomised vehicle-controlled trial’, gathered data from 80 study participants across Aotearoa New Zealand. Notably, a quarter of the participants were Māori, higher than both the most recent census population estimate of 16.5% and previous participation rates seen in eczema studies undertaken in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Conducted through the MRINZ national community Pharmacy Research Network (PRN), the trial investigated the efficacy and safety of a 3% kānuka oil (KO) cream compared to a vehicle control cream, identical in composition but not containing kānuka oil. Founded and managed by the MRINZ, in partnership with the New Zealand Pharmacy Guild, the PRN is made up of research trained community pharmacies spread across the motu. Able to conduct randomised controlled trials in a community setting, the PRN have enrolled over 1200 New Zealanders in clinical studies since 2015.

“The Pharmacy Research Network is a socially driven and evidence-based long-term research partnership — helping to inform patients of their therapeutic choices and enhancing community pharmacy-led services,” says Dr Alex Semprini, MRINZ Deputy Director and PRN programme lead.

“The PRN framework was crucial in allowing us to complete this trial despite the impediments that a global pandemic put in the way of medical research.”

Participants were dispensed bottles of study treatment for application to affected areas twice daily, morning and night, over a six-week period, and completed weekly electronic diaries to assess their symptoms. They then returned to their participating pharmacy six weeks after their first visit for assessment of their eczema severity. The main finding of the study was that the self-reported symptoms of eczema in those who had been randomised to use the kānuka oil cream improved to a greater degree than the control group.

Kānuka, which is often mistaken for mānuka, is endemic to Aotearoa New Zealand and grows abundantly throughout the Tairāwhiti region. The kānuka tree has traditionally been a part of Rongoā Māori treatments. Kānuka oil has demonstratable anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial properties used to address conditions such as urinary infections, coughs, colds, back pain, burns and scalds, and various skin conditions.

The kānuka oil used in this study was sustainably sourced and extracted by Hikurangi Bioactives Limited Partnership and compounded into study treatment under the direction of TRG Natural Pharmaceuticals.

“Kānuka and other native plants have many well-known traditional uses that have stood the test of time,” says study investigator and TRG Natural Pharmaceuticals director Dr Shaun Holt.

“To be able to substantiate Kānuka oil usage for the treatment of eczema through this study is a big step towards offering a new product both here in Aotearoa and around the globe.”

With strong trial result backing proving Kānuka oil eczema cream’s safety and effectiveness, TRG Natural Pharmaceuticals and HBLP are in early conversations with local distributors and confidently looking to take the formula to international markets.

“This trial is a big deal for Hikurangi Bioactives Limited Partnership with evidence around the efficacy of this product derived from taonga species,” says HBLP Co-Founder Manu Caddie.

“The success of this trial using kānuka oil to treat eczema is hugely exciting and could now lead to a sustainable and profitable industry for the Tairāwhiti region, providing new jobs for local people.”

“The experience HBLP has gained through the collaboration with TRG Natural Pharmaceuticals and the MRINZ has been invaluable and is leading us to many other opportunities to prove the safety and efficacy of products derived from compounds found in other natural sources,” says Manu.

“Globally, eczema is one of the most common skin conditions, and represents a burden of chronic disease often self-managed through off-the-shelf topical products, many with limited or no evidence of therapeutic value,” says Dr Semprini.

“We at the MRINZ are hugely proud to be involved in the validation of an effective natural medical product developed and manufactured here in New Zealand and unique to Aotearoa.”

More information

Find out more about the Medical Research Institute of New Zealand

Date posted: 27 July 2022

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