Cape Breton University Researchers Awarded $850,000 Research Grant for the Re-Discovery of an L’nu Traditional Medicine

Working alongside Elders of Membertou First Nations, and Mr. Tuma Young, Dr. Matthias Bierenstiel, Professor of Chemistry at Cape Breton University, has been awarded a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) Project Grant of $856,800 for their maskwiomin(birch bark-oil) research. Maskwiomin was an almost forgotten traditional L’nu medicine. Elders of Membertou First Nation have traditionally used the oil in the treatment of skin conditions such as rashes, eczema and psoriasis. For the past six years, Tuma Young, also of Cape Breton University, has been working with Dr. Bierenstiel on the re-discovery of birch bark-oil through the re-telling of stories and practical experiments.

“The goal of this five-year project is to expand the fundamental knowledge of maskwiomin,” says Dr. Bierenstiel. “We work together with L’nu communities to re-discover this traditional medicine through their stories and with the respect of traditions while using modern scientific methodology, when appropriate. It is expected that the totality of this project will lead to an Indigenous-led commercialization of over-the-counter products as well as new pharmaceutical drugs in the long term.”

Dr. Bierenstiel will be leading a research team consisting of Tuma Young, CBU Unama’ki College, Dr. Audrey Walsh and Dr. Claudette Taylor of the CBU Nursing Department along with Dr. Kerry Goralski, Dr. David Jakeman and Dr. Alison Thompson of Dalhousie University from the Departments of Chemistry and Pharmacology. Additional collaborators on the project include Daniel Paul, Nova Scotia Community College Elder in Residence and Lawrence Wells, CBU Elder in Residence as well as John Ritter, MD, a physician with the Cape Breton Regional Hospital.

Chief Terry Paul of Membertou, whose organization offered a letter of support for Dr. Bierenstiel’s proposal, says the proposed project is an example of the Two-Eyed Seeing approach of connecting science and Indigenous knowledge.

“This initiative may enable our Mi’kmaq communities to blend traditional knowledge with science,” says Paul. “Given Membertou’s experience in economic development, we were pleased to learn of the potential to bring the product to market.”

In 2017, Dr. Bierenstiel and Young successfully worked with the Indigenous community in an equal partnership based on a Two-Eyed Seeing approach, with the support of a CIHR Catalyst grant. During this project, the researchers worked with Elders and community members to re-discover maskwiomin and laid the exploratory groundwork for this new 5-year CIHR project grant.

The new CIHR Project Grant will allow Dr. Bierenstiel and his team to expand the work on the community level and in pharmaceutical science. Maskwiomin is traditionally obtained by a torrefaction reaction of birch bark in a campfire setup. Dr. Bierenstiel has since developed a proprietary electric reactor to better control the conditions. The medical aspect of the project covers pilot studies to examine the wide range of clinical indications of maskwiomin

“There is plenty of time-consuming work ahead on maskwiomin before the public can officially purchase the ointment,” says Dr. Bierenstiel. “We are working methodically and require proper ethics approvals at every stage. Communication with the community is also of great importance.” The project will also provide hands-on learning opportunities to undergraduate and graduate students in science, health and Indigenous studies for participation as student assistant researchers.

“We are thrilled that our researchers and members of the L’nu community are being recognized for their important collaborative work,” says Tanya Brann-Barrett, Associate Vice-President, Academic & Research. “This CIHR Project Grant speaks to the innovative research that is possible when traditional knowledge and modern scientific methodology are blended here at CBU.”

The 5-year CIHR Project Grant is one of the largest health research grants received at Cape Breton University. The CIHR Project Grant supports research projects that have great potential to advance health-related fundamental or applied knowledge, health research, health care, health systems and/or health outcomes.