the traditional medicine so it can one day be sold
Breton University professors Tuma Young, left, and Matthias
Bierenstiel have received $150,000 from the Canadian Institutes
of Health Research for biomedical screening and Indigenous
studies of birch bark oil. (CBU.ca)
Two professors at Cape Breton University a chemist and
a Mi'kmaq scholar have been awarded $150,000 to study the
healing powers of birch bark.
Tuma Young, assistant professor of L'nu studies, and Matthias
Bierenstiel, associate professor of chemistry, are combining traditional
knowledge and fundamental science to determine how and why the bark
works to soothe skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis.
"For many years we didn't really know what exactly was in it
that was good for it," said Young. "We just knew it was good for
The professors brought a birch-bark oil with them to the interview
on CBC's Information Morning in Halifax. It stinks of barbecue or
fire, and contains lots for a chemist to study.
Finding the active ingredients
"In this mixture, there are more than 200 different complex
... compounds in there and so we're trying to identify which ones
are the active ones," Bierenstiel said.
One major component of birch bark is betulin.
"It's a plant metabolite that has anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory,
anti-microbial activity," Bierenstiel said. "And in fact ... one
gram is three times more expensive than gold, if you want to buy
The one-year project received the $150,000 from the Canadian
Institutes of Health Research.
Interviews with elders
The end goal is to create an over-the-counter product that is
suitable for people and not too time-consuming. The traditional
distillation process for birch-bark oil takes roughly 60 hours to
produce only a small amount of the oil.
Young said they'll be interviewing dozens of elders at Membertou
First Nation in Cape Breton to learn about how they have used birch
bark, or masgwi.
"Predominantly you're concerned about the benefits and reclaiming
and re-remembering the traditional knowledge," Young said. "So part
of my work is that if I'm going to get some information on masgwi
then .... we have to learn about other medicines that are associated