Jonni Koia

Māori have been using rākau rongoā (Māori herbal medicine) to heal diabetes for a long time. We know rongoā like kūmarahou, karamu and kawakawa can cure diabetes.

My research simply aims to support and verify that mātauranga (knowledge) from a biomedical molecular scientific point of view. It does this under the korowai (cloak) of Te Reo Tipu, a framework to protect and safeguard that mātauranga through meaningful engagements with Māori communities.

Te Reo Tipu is a kaupapa Māori framework developed specifically for biomedical and bioheritage research on taonga (treasured) native plants, like our rākau rongoā.

As a Māori researcher, I am not only interested in understanding the potential of rākau rongoā used for diabetes at the molecular cell level, but also in safeguarding the mātauranga of our rongoā through kaitiakitanga (guardianship), mana motuhake (self-determination) and rangatiratanga (governance) protocols.

Molecular evidence for rongoā in the treatment of diabetes

For people with type 2 diabetes, absorbing glucose correctly is a problem which leads to high blood sugar. Preliminary evidence is already showing us that rongoā like kūmarahou, karamu and kawakawa can support the uptake of glucose from the bloodstream into fat cells, reducing the harmful consequences of diabetes.

Kūmarahou seems to shows the most significant effect of all three rongoā I have tested. My research is in collaboration with Professor Peter Shepherd and his team of researchers at the University of Auckland, who specialise in biomedical research on diabetes and cancer.

I am also working with Dr John Taylor from the University of Auckland, supporting first time molecular evidence showing that kawakawa has TNF-α anti-inflammatory effects. Accumulating evidence suggests inflammatory processes are involved in the development of prediabetes.

Based on previous evidence, my review suggests that isovexitin, a compound found in kawakawa leaf extracts at significant levels, may inhibit TNF-α inflammation and help reduce prediabetes.

My research findings, drawn from a Māori worldview, have illustrated why Māori have been using rongoā for a long time to cure diabetes. Many Māori whānau are fortunate to have that traditional knowledge passed down through their whakapapa (family history).

Seeking mātauranga (knowledge) from Māori

As Māori, I knew it was important to seek first-hand knowledge from kairongoā (Māori health practitioners) and my kaumātua (elders).  It is important that the mātauranga Māori of our taonga species is sought first-hand from Māori, and not bioprospected or exploited.

Being Māori myself, if its good enough for me to ask my kaumātua about doing this research, then it should be good enough for tauiwi (non-Māori) to ask too. Tauiwi need to make the effort to find out who their local kaumātua are in the area and approach them about their research to seek consent. It is important tauiwi seek to actively and meaningfully engage with the Māori community at the whānau and marae level, not so much at iwi level.

No place for secretive research on taonga native plants

I have learned of cases where researchers undertake secretive molecular and biochemical studies on our rongoā like kawakawa, exploiting information from the public domain with no Māori engagement. Māori view secretive, exploitive research on our taiao (environment) and taonga rongoā as disgraceful.

Ethically it is wrong. It should not hold any merit in the scientific community. Universities and scientific journals need to have policies in place that prevent researchers from exploiting our taiao and taonga species, especially when done secretively, with no Māori involvement.

What I find the most frustrating is that there are researchers who criticise or disregard the work of our kairongoā, while at the same time conducting scientific and clinical research on our rongoā in secret. This is wrong and needs to stop.

Te Reo Tipu: A kaupapa Māori framework for biomedical and bioheritage research

My understanding of rongoā Māori mana motuhake (self-determination of Māori medicine) has led to the establishment of Te Reo Tipu, which is currently interested in rongoā known to cure diabetes, SARS influenza and cancer. It is also interested in research on rongoā for kauri dieback.

Te Reo Tipu Research consists of a number of portfolios such as:

  • Te Reo Tipu Manaaki – a kāhui kaumātua (group of elders) to oversee and provide guidance on my research.
  • Te Reo Tipu Rangatahi – a kāhui rangatahi (group of young adults) to provide insight and advice on my research in terms of succession.
  • Te Reo Tipu Vision Mātauranga – supports Vision Mātauranga government investment, as it relates to my research.
  • Te Reo Tipu Anga – supports the development of frameworks for biomedical and bioheritage research on our taonga flora.

I am very proud of my recent review in Frontiers in Pharmacology that also shows a world-first display of Māori symbolic metaphors with scientific metabolic pathways related to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. This is only the first of many to come through Te Reo Tipu.

I invite any of my fellow scientists considering an exploration of rongoā Māori to use this protective, kaupapa Māori framework, under the guidance of local kairongoā and kaumātua. In working with our taiao and taonga native plants, we must respect those whose connection with it is deepest – Māori.

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