Building partnerships for linking biomedical science with traditional knowledge of customary medicines: a case study with two Australian Indigenous communities

Joanne Packer, Gerry Turpin, Emilie Ens, Beatrice Venkataya, Mbabaram Community, Yirralka Rangers, Jennifer Hunter

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5 Citations (Scopus)
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Background: Customary medicine of Australia’s Indigenous peoples draws upon knowledge developed through millennia of interaction with Australia’s unique flora and fauna. Many Indigenous Australians are interested in developing modern medicinal and commercial translations of traditional knowledge; however, barriers of trust and benefit sharing often thwart progress.

Using a participatory action research framework, university researchers collaborated with members of two Australian Indigenous communities to investigate selected medicinal plants and locally made bush products. A trusted community liaison facilitated the collaboration that was fostered through bilateral site visits. Material transfer and confidentiality agreements ensured that the plant materials were only used for the agreed purpose. Plain language written reports of the laboratory results were provided to the communities with follow up discussions.

Results: In case study 1, only some of the traditional uses for the raw plants were shared with the researchers. Deidentified plants were assessed for antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. In case study 2, the plant names, traditional uses, and preparation methods were shared with the aim of learning more about their plants, potential uses, and optimising their bush products. Literature reviews were conducted that also helped guide in vitro testing of the crude and solvent partitioned extracts. These differences reflected the community’s reasons for conducting the research and intellectual property considerations. In both cases, observed benefits included building trust and strengthening working relationships for ongoing collaboration, fostering enthusiasm for linking traditional and scientific knowledge, promoting cross-cultural learning about scientific methods and traditional medicine, maintaining the relevance of traditional knowledge in the modern world, and initiating community discussions around their bush medicine product development.

Conclusions: Community-driven scientific investigation of traditional medicinal knowledge can facilitate culturally meaningful outcomes, with potentially wide-reaching direct and indirect benefits. Community liaisons were invaluable for establishment of strong relationships and ensured that the research was culturally and locally appropriate. The need for clearer guidelines and regulation around community-driven biomedical research of their plants was identified. Australia would benefit from a user-friendly, open-source toolkit that promotes use of local traditional medicines, contains information about processes and protocols that communities and scientists could use to develop collaborative projects, and guides regulation and ethical commercialisation. Close consultation and collaboration with communities and researchers will be needed to ensure that such a toolkit is culturally appropriate and fit-for-purpose.
Original languageEnglish
Article number69
Pages (from-to)1-11
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine
Publication statusPublished - 23 Dec 2019

Bibliographical note

Copyright the Author(s) 2019. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.


  • Traditional medicine
  • Community engagement
  • Collaboration
  • Bioactivity
  • Ethnomedicine
  • Aboriginal
  • Indigenous


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