Planting potential: isolation of natural compound could provide medicinal benefits

Researchers from the University of Melbourne and industry partner Gretals Australia Pty Ltd have successfully isolated commercial quantities of a compound found in native trees that is being explored for its therapeutic and medicinal properties.

The flavanone compound (GA172), which is found in many plants and is a component within propolis, produced in honey, has been isolated from the leaves of an Australian species of eucalypt. This is the first time that enough of the compound has been produced to make a commercially viable product.

In 2017 researchers from the School of Ecosystem and Forest Sciences and the School of BioSciences at the University of Melbourne partnered with Gretals on an Australian Research Council (ARC) Linkage Project, that was recently completed. The researchers identified a species of Eucalyptus with extremely high levels of the target flavanone.

Gretals has established a site growing this species of eucalypt, with selected growers planting approximately 18,000 trees. Harvesting will begin within a few months to provide adequate supplies for commercial production. The compound is being investigated for its potential in the functional foods, nutraceuticals, and the pharmaceutical industries.

Eucalyptus forest canopy

Professor Ian Woodrow, who led the project for the University of Melbourne, said he was pleased the work has opened up a potentially lucrative new source of revenue for Victorian farmers.

“Eucalypts are rich sources of many interesting compounds that can be harvested from sustainably grown plantations,” he said.

“Land that is unprofitable or marginal for other purposes like crops or animal grazing can be planted with these high value eucalyptus trees, creating a new industry while also locking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, creating a dual revenue stream for landowners.”

Researchers from the Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences are supporting early investigations into the anti-inflammatory properties of the compound including how it could be used to treat respiratory diseases.

Managing Director and founder of Gretals Australia, Alistair Cumming, said he started the company several years ago, primarily to find a compound to replace the use of antibiotics in livestock feed, but has since taken a keen interest in the use of plant compouds for pharmaceutical use.

Mr Cumming said that the company has engaged with several farmers in north-eastern Victoria for growing the trees containing this compound, creating a supply chain and opening opportunities for the expansion of this new industry throughout the region.

“Nature is the world’s greatest scientist – all we have to do is find the compounds and do the scientific validation for different diseases” Mr Cumming added.

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