New research shows the matalafi plant, widely used in traditional medicine for treating inflammation, works in a similar way to ibuprofen.

Led by Sāmoan scientist Dr Seeseei Molimau-Samasoni, the research looked at how the matalafi plant worked at a molecular level when used as medication. 

Traditionally, the leaves of the plant are ground into a paste which is applied topically to treat inflammation associated with a range of ailments including skin infections, fever, body aches and wounds. 

While it has been used for generations in Sāmoa, no formal western scientific research has occurred.

Dr Molimau-Samasoni worked with traditional healers to harvest the matalafi plant in Sāmoa before samples were transported to the University of Victoria, Wellington for analysis. The process involved a bit of innovative thinking across the Pacific. 

After leaves were collected in Sāmoa, they were washed and sterilised in water within the hour before being processed through a Breville juicer. The leaf juice was then sent “on ice” to Wellington.

The analysis, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA this week, identified the matalafi plant interacts with the iron within cells of the body through two bioactive compounds - rutin and nicotiflorin. That process, known as iron chelation, means it has a remarkably similar anti-inflammatory effect to ibuprofen. 

Dr Molimau-Samasoni, who is now with the Scientific Research Organisation of Samoa, says it was a special project she first looked into as a PhD student.

“This project is unique in integrating traditional knowledge with different types of biological and chemical methodologies.”

Dr Helen Woolner, who also contributed to the research and is of Cook Island Māori descent, pointed to the importance of indigenous values and communities throughout the project. 

“Our research is also remarkable for the integration of the indigenous researcher–community engagement, which has not always been the case with previous studies of Sāmoan traditional medicine by commercial researchers.”

The research also identified other ways the matalafi plant could be used medicinally, including against common diseases like diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. As an iron chelator, it also has the potential to treat iron overload associated with blood transfusions.

 “This raises the possibility for applications of matalafi beyond traditional use,” Dr Woolner says. 

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