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By Emma Malcolm 16 December 2022 3 min read

Australia’s first scientists are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. They have been harnessing the medicinal powers of native plants for thousands of years.

Indigenous business Secret Harvest wanted to learn more about a very special plant known for its healing properties. They reached out to us and gained support through our Kick-Start program.

Secret Harvest begins

Bidjara and Kara Kara man Phil Thompson and Wailwan woman Cherie Thompson started the Secret Harvest business this year. The husband-and-wife team wanted to reignite old conversations and preserve deep knowledge passed down from one generation to the next.

Their Dubbo-based start-up has now released its first product range called Native Secrets.

"If we can share that knowledge, then we can all benefit from it," Phil says.

"This is an Australian story that we can all share and be really proud of. I think it’s one of the best ways that we can reconcile this country. Through positive stories and through our Traditional knowledge."

(L-R) Wiradjuri Elder Uncle Peter Peckham, CSIRO scientist Dr Katherine Locock, and Native Secrets founder Phil Thompson.

Using plants as medicine

Plants have given us many of the medicines we use today, including aspirin, morphine and codeine. We have a team of scientists dedicated to finding out more about plants, including potential medicinal applications.

Plants have some incredible defence mechanisms to prevent them from being eaten or attacked by insects, viruses or bacteria. When plants make these defensive moves, molecules are created that can help people too. Indigenous peoples understood this, and now we're delving into the detail and discovering new things about our native flora.

Professor Peter Duggan heads up our Botanical Extracts Lab. He is coordinating a team of scientists to work with Secret Harvest. This team includes Dr Kathleen Turner, Dr Ben Cao and Dr Parveen Sangwan.

"First Nations people have known about the medicinal properties of native plants for thousands of years. Secret Harvest will own the intellectual property developed during our work together. This means they can reap the rewards for their business," Peter says.

Scientists explore nature secrets

Our team of scientists is working to learn more about the active ingredients in a particular native plant for Native Secrets.

Kathleen is working on developing extraction techniques that are transferrable, efficient and economically viable. This will help the business determine whether to use existing equipment or invest sensibly in new equipment. They will know the benefit the new production technique will have on their business.

Ben is testing the plant for its anti-inflammatory properties. The plant has been known to help reduce swelling, but we want to understand how. Ben can stimulate cells in a dish to produce inflammatory molecules (cytokines). He then adds the extracts from the plant and measures the reduction in cytokines.

Parveen is testing the antimicrobial activity of the plant. With antimicrobial resistance one of the globe’s biggest threats, we need a solution fast. Australia has diverse flora, and the solutions may come from working with our Indigenous peoples.

To test for antimicrobial activity, the team takes bacteria, yeasts and mould that cause skin infections and other health conditions. They compare their growth with and without the plant extracts to see if extracts inhibit growth of the microbes.

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Indigenous knowledge meets modern science

Dr Katherine Locock leads our drug discovery and chemistry team. She has been championing Indigenous engagement in CSIRO for the past decade. She visited Phil and Cherie, along with Wiradjuri Elder Uncle Peter Peckham, at their property outside of Dubbo, NSW.

"We have such a unique opportunity here in Australia. We have the oldest continuous living culture in the world. Indigenous peoples have knowledge of the land, the plants and the animals and how it all fits together," Katherine says.

"This could hold the key to us navigating some of the greatest challenges we face together. And to derive benefits for Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike."

Secret Harvest received funding support through CSIRO Kick-Start, an initiative for innovative Australian start-ups and small businesses.

Protecting Indigenous intellectual property is a vital part of working with Indigenous businesses. We’ve built specific clauses into the contract to ensure the Indigenous knowledge that comes to us through plant samples is protected.

“These engagements take time and involve building trusted and respectful relationships. These are as important as the science and technology being developed,” Katherine says.

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