New Zealand has the potential to harvest multi-billion dollar returns from pharmaceutical honey applications, says Dr Shaun Holt, founder of Bay of Plenty-based Honey Lab.
The company focused almost exclusively on pharmaceutical applications for medical honey and bee venom, and devoted about 80 per cent of available funding to research, he said.
"Our aim is to develop intellectual property in terms of product research that we can license to major global pharmaceutical companies," said Dr Holt, who was also an adjunct professor at Victoria University of Wellington.
The company's products were produced from kanuka honey, rather than the manuka honey that is more commonly associated with medical benefits. However, Dr Holt said honey from both manuka and kanuka - which were largely endemic to New Zealand - contained significant anti-microbial qualities.
Although the company was not interested in building up its own branded range, it had taken three basic products through development and manufacturing to prove the concept and these were available through some pharmacies and online.
Kanu Bee Venom was aimed at the anti-ageing market, while Rubeeven was a patented combination of capsacin and bee venom used for topical pain relief. Honevo is a honey-based ointment that has applications for acne, nappy rash, cold sores and rosacea (red face).
Tauriko-based nutraceuticals manufacturer Health House manufactures the products for Honey Lab.
Dr Holt said that while the bee venom products were important, the main focus of the business was on developing honey-based treatments. The company was about to receive important results on clinical trial on the use of Honeyvo for rosacea.
"We think it's good for the medical research community to be supporting these sorts of products that are unique to New Zealand and have potential benefits, not just in health, but in economic terms," said Professor Richard Beasley, the director of the Medical Research Council of New Zealand, which was supervising the clinical trial.
Dr Holt said he expected international companies wanting to license the products would source much of the medical honey from New Zealand.
The bee venom was extracted by a process using electrified glass screens outside the beehives, which milked the venom without killing the bees. Katikati-based Buzz Apiaries, run by David Hayes, managed the honey and bee venom collections for Honey Lab and processed the honey so it was suitable for medical applications.
"It's an exciting industry to be involved in," said Mr Hayes, who was currently developing a new conditioning, filtering and packing plant to produce pharmaceutical honey.
• Founded: 2009
• Co-founders: Dr Shaun Holt and Laurence Greig
• Business model: Creating multiple revenue streams by creating new honey and bee venom products from foundation formulations that have been proven through clinical trials.
Extensive trials under way on honey products
Two of the largest international trials ever undertaken and involving Honey Lab products are being supervised the Medical Research Council of New Zealand.
Council director Richard Beasley says: "The principle that underlines all of Honey Lab's products is that the products must be tested under a controlled trial."
Professor Beasley said the research was almost completed and was expected to be released within the next month or so on a controlled trial involving 140 individuals into the effect of the honey-based ointment Honeyvo on rosacea, or red face.
"In an international context, these are large trials," he said.
"The rosacea trial is one of the largest ever undertaken."
In addition, the council would supervise one of the largest trials ever undertaken to evaluate the use of Honeyvo on cold sores.
It would also complete another major study on Honey Lab products this year.
"These are real studies with strict methodology."
Professor Beasley said the council was pleased to work with founder Shaun Holt and Honey Lab. " We think it's important for new medicines or nutraceuticals that we actually do randomised scientific trials to assess benefit and risk," he said. Dr Holt emphasised that research was a priority for the company.
"We aim to sell our medical honey at around $2000 per kilo," he said. "We're aiming for ultra-high value and putting our money into research."
Honey Lab was involved in discussions with several of the top pharmaceutical companies globally. "They mop up products and have the regulatory and marketing expertise."
The company is also collaborating with one of the world's leading hospital research centres, the Mayo Clinic, in Minnesota, US.
A longstanding email relationship with the Mayo Clinic's head of complementary medicine, Brent Bauer, had led to an ongoing research partnership.
This included Mayo staff peer reviewing research and seeking funding for further studies into Honey Lab products.