The Search for Science in Pacific Remedies

Story by Hamish Howard

Faculty of Science, 2018

Helen Woolner

Helen Woolner graduated from Victoria University of Wellington with a Bachelor of Science in 2009, a Master of Science in 2012, and a Doctor of Philosophy in 2017.

All of Helen’s university qualifications have been achieved in the field of chemistry. Her postgraduate research delved into the chemical components isolated from Pacific marine invertebrates, searching for chemical compounds that could be of value—particularly with respect to human health. Now, having graduated with a PhD in Chemistry, Helen is set to continue her ambitious and inspiring research.

In anticipation of Helen giving the student graduation address in December 2017, Brian Halton, Professor Emeritus at the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, wrote in an email to Helen’s old school He Huarahi Tamariki, “Helen is a prime example of a young woman who has succeeded in the face of adversity, an example to all and one who, for me, it is a privilege to know. I am sure that distinctions will continue as Helen’s life and experiences grow”.

Secondary Metabolites

Produced by plants and algae, secondary metabolites are organic compounds that are not essential to an organism’s growth, development or reproduction. These compounds often provide benefits to organisms, protecting them from harsh environmental conditions or defending them from being eaten. Secondary metabolites are thought to play a large role in determining human food preferences as many influence nutrient levels in plants. They have been used by humans in medicine, cuisine, and as recreational drugs.

Elucidating Research

Helen Woolner, who is of Cook Island Maori and New Zealand Pākehā descent, was recently awarded approximately $350,000 in funding through the Health Research Council’s Pacific Health Research Postdoctoral Fellowship programme. This will fund a three-year research programme at Victoria’s Chemical Genetics Laboratory, under the supervision of Dr Rob Keyzers and Dr Andrew Munkacsi. Helen’s research will explore the chemical and biological properties of traditional plant-based medicines from New Zealand, Samoa, and the Cook Islands.

This research programme will build upon knowledge acquired through Helen’s postgraduate research and that of a fellow PhD graduate from Victoria, Dr Seeseei Molimau-Samasoni. Seeseei’s PhD thesis, titled Exploring the Molecular Mechanisms of Action of Samoan Medicinal Plants via Chemical Genetic Analyses, was successful in identifying an anti-inflammatory iron-chelating mechanism of action from the semi-purified extract obtained from Samoan plant traditionally used as an anti-inflammatory.

Helen’s research aims to screen a total of 30 plants with traditional uses within the New Zealand Māori, Cook Island Maori, and Samoan cultures. She will select and source 10 of the most promising plants from each nation. In order to do so, Helen will be working closely with Hikurangi Enterprises in New Zealand, the Scientific Research Organisation of Samoa, and family from the Cook Islands.

Helen will assess the antimicrobial activity of these plants by looking at their effects on yeast cells. A process of identifying and isolating secondary metabolites from the plants will then be undertaken in those species which show encouraging results. These secondary metabolites can then be screened for activity in any number of applications. Who knows what she may discover?

There is strong precedent for such work to prove valuable. Prostratin, a drug found in the mamala tree of Samoa, has shown great potential in the treatment of HIV, cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. A simple four-step process for synthesising the drug was established in 2008 and the drug is now in commercial use.

Victoria University of Wellington

Victoria University of Wellington, Kelburn, Wellington 6012, New Zealand