• Professors Tuma Young, Matthias Bierenstiel, medicinal properties of birch bark oil.

    Professors Tuma Young (left) and Matthias Bierenstiel (right) are teaming up to study the medicinal properties of birch bark oil. (Photo courtesy Cape Breton University)

Birch bark has long been used to treat skin ailments within Indigenous communities, and now two researchers—a chemist and an Indigenous studies professor, will be combining their expertise to better understand its medicinal properties. Professors Tuma Young and Matthias Bierenstiel from Cape Breton University have been awarded $150,000 by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) for their community-based approach that mixes modern science with Indigenous knowledge.

The team is working to make it easier and quicker to make effective birch bark oil, which contains betulin, a chemical compound with anti-inflammatory properties. The project will also involve consultations with Membertou First Nations on the traditional uses of the product.

Here, Young and Bierenstiel discuss the multi-faceted nature of the project and their goals.

On improving the product

Bierenstiel: We have anecdotal evidence that birch bark oil works against eczema and psoriasis. Many people are suffering from that, so why can’t we help them all over the world with this knowledge that comes from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia? We can tap into hundreds of years of knowledge and we can make an improvement. It’s like the story of aspirin – people were gnawing on willow bark because it was good against headaches, and we modified it from a chemistry perspective. There’s this knowledge that people have gathered for hundreds of years, and now we can use modern scientific tools to make it better. For example, the traditional way of making the oil takes 60 hours and you get a very small quantity. But we've developed chemical reactors that produce a much larger quantity.

The other downfall of the oil is that it stinks – it has a very strong barbeque stench. We can deodorize it, and now have proof that the deodorized oil is still just as active. That was really a breakthrough moment. 

On cross-discipline cooperation

Bierenstiel: At a small undergraduate institution like Cape Breton University it's easy to talk with faculty of all different disciplines. I had a project with an industrial partner and they have a lot of bark waste. They asked 'what can we do with birch bark?' Tuma Young is an Indigenous studies professor and an ethnobotanist. We were chatting, and he was talking about how he took his students to pick sweet grass and make birch bark ointment. That’s how we started talking—‘birch bark oil? Tell me more about this?’

Theres so many partnerships going on. The Indigenous group is saving the knowledge from being lost and connecting it with science. There’s also a commercial aspect. From an academic perspective, it’s really interesting finding out what is special about this product.

On restoring Indigenous knowledge

Young: From my perspective the most important thing is to preserve Indigenous knowledge. I’m an ethnobotanist – I go around talking about other plants that are used by other communities. Membertou elders are asking for that information too, so when I talk with them it’s a bit of an exchange. The benefits go back to the community, and it becomes a win-win situation.