Two professors from Cape Breton University, in the fields of Chemistry and L’nu Studies have recently been awarded $150,000 for a one-year project for their research on the use of birch bark oil for topical treatments of skin conditions.
Tuma Young, Assistant Professor of Mi’kmaq Studies and Matthias Bierenstiel, Associate Professor of Chemistry, received the funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) for the biomedical screening and indigenous studies of birch bark oil. The funding supports a community liaison position assisting with interviews and a senior science research associate for the biomedical research. In addition, several CBU Bachelor of Arts and Science undergraduate students are assisting with this project in the indigenous study and science research portions demonstrating hands-on, experiential education at CBU.
“Mi’kmaq people have used birch bark oil for centuries to treat topical skin conditions such as dry skin, eczema and psoriasis,” says Young. However, the traditional dry distillation process of birch bark oil is not efficient, it takes roughly 60 hours to produce a small quantity of the oil.
The community based research project will work directly with members of the community to ensure a two-eyed seeing approach is used. “We want to work with Elders from Membertou to hear about their experiences with birch bark oil and figure out a way to further advance the developmental process of birch bark oil,” says Young. Having an equal partnership with Membertou First Nation Elders allows for the community to be involved in the research project each step of the way, from determining the best way to harvest the birch bark to the preferred method of application.
The intent of the research is to create a birch bark oil ointment that will be suitable for human use, ensuring it is not potent or a time-consuming process and will then become accessible to the public after further research and development. In the applied science part of the project, Bierenstiel is improving processing efficiency and removing the unpleasant odour of the birch bark oil without affecting the effectiveness of the oil used as an ointment for skin conditions. As the oil is a natural product, the applied science project requires study of the chemical composition of the complex organic compound mixture and chemical interactions to determine potency and shelf life.
“From our preliminary research, thus far, we have confirmed that birch bark oil kills bacteria and thus is a natural antibiotic drug. With the state-of-the-art research equipment at CBU and Verschuren Centre, we are examining and analyzing the compounds of the birch bark oil with hopes of creating an over-the-counter product, which will one day be accessible to the public,” says Dr. Bierenstiel. “The research we are putting into birch bark oil is a great example of mutual partnership of traditional indigenous knowledge paired with modern scientific tools to benefit everyone. In fact, the review committee particularly praised the equal partnership approach. As this is a one-year grant, we are already planning the next phase of this research, which will focus on other medical properties of the oil such as anti-cancer studies.”
The funding announcement was a part of a $865,000 National Announcement made by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.