Rongoā Māori study to help combat type-2 diabetes

After many years of living in Australia, food biologist Dr Jonni Koia (Tainui, Ngāti Whāwhākia) is returning to Aotearoa to investigate the potential of rongoā Māori to help combat type-2 diabetes.

Koia received a Health Research Council of New Zealand Māori health research postdoctoral fellowship worth more than $425,000. She has also taken up a research position at the University of Waikato.

Koia has more than 15 years experience in molecular biology and biotechnology related to plant and food research. 

Previously based at the University of Queensland, she led the first large-scale gene expression study to identify numerous genes involved in pineapple ripening and other important processes such as those involved in anti-oxidant and vitamin C production. 

Koia will now focus on rākau rongoā with known anti-diabetic properties. 

She says New Zealand flora is one of the most unique and diverse in the world, with many species of indigenous flora having rongoā or medical properties that Māori have used for hundreds of years. She says rongoā rākau has not been clinically evaluated and tested for their use in treating type-2 diabetes. 

“Māori herbal medicines have provided relief for many common ailments and chronic conditions over centuries where mātauranga Māori (traditional knowledge) holds significant importance. Given New Zealand’s unique indigenous flora, the plant vegetation foods, seeds, roots, nuts, and fruits that formed the basis of traditional Māori diet and rongoā rākau seem worthwhile targets in a systematic search for anti-diabetic agents,” says Dr Koia. 

Diabetes has doubled in New Zealand over the past 10 years from 125,000 to 250,000 cases. 

Dr Koia says she hopes to find new anti-diabetic agents in these natural products that stabilise blood glucose levels without the adverse side effects of current anti-diabetic drugs such as weight gain, heart failure and fluid retention.   

She says a vital part of this project will be safeguarding the mātauranga Māori for rongoā rākau through active collaborations with rongoā rākau practitioners and advisors, Māori elders, and members of trust boards such as the governing body of rongoā Māori, Te Kāhui Rongoā Trust.   

“I’m very grateful and honoured to receive this fellowship. I’m grateful for the opportunity it will provide to return home with my young whānau and to give back to my whānau, hapū and iwi. I look forward to contributing towards advancing rongoā rākau and safeguarding mātauranga Māori for the betterment of our people as a whole in Aotearoa,” says Dr Koia.  

HRC Manager of Māori Research Investment Stacey Pene says natural products are an important source for drug discovery, with an estimated 25 per cent of all current prescription drugs derived from plants. 

“We’re delighted to have helped attracted Jonni back to New Zealand through this career development funding. Her study will further advance her knowledge of rongoā rākau as a means of benefiting Māori health and help provide robust scientific and clinical research to identify and validate any active anti-diabetic agents that might be found,” says Mr Pene.