Nova Scotia

Traditional Mi'kmaw medicine could become modern skin therapy

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research has given researchers a grant worth $850,000 to rediscover a traditional Mi’kmaw medicine. Maskwiomin is a medicine made of oil from birch bark used to treat skin conditions such as rashes, eczema and psoriasis.

Researchers at Cape Breton University to study birch bark oil to treat rashes, eczema

Oil from birch bark could be instrumental in developing a new medicine for treating skin conditions. (Submitted by Heather Goobie)

Researchers at Nova Scotia's Cape Breton University have received a $850,000 grant to develop a traditional Mi'kmaw medicine for potential future commercial production as a skin ointment.

Maskwiomin is made from the oil of birch bark and is used to treat skin conditions such as rashes, eczema and psoriasis.

Matthias Bierenstiel, a chemistry professor at Cape Breton University, said the traditional medicine could be a "powerful" remedy for people who suffer from such conditions.

He said modern medicine and ointments used to treat skin conditions are typically hit or miss, but so far, maskwiomin is proving to be much more effective.

"We have great anecdotal evidence now," said Bierenstiel. "People [are] coming back to us and saying, 'I used it. My skin hasn't been better. My outbreak on the skin has been cleared up within a few days, almost miraculously'."

The research group that is studying maskwiomin. From left to right: Tuma Young, Dr. Claudette Taylor, Dr. Matthias Bierenstiel and Dr. Audrey Walsh. (Submitted/Cape Breton University)

A post about the research on the Cape Breton University website said the oil appears to have some antibiotic properties. It said the prospect of finding a new antibiotic treatment from a source as plentiful as birch bark is "highly promising".

Tuma Young, an assistant professor of Mi'kmaw studies, said the traditional medicine was almost lost throughout the years. He said he found out about it by asking Mi'kmaw elders about how effective it was.

Young said one of the main goals of this research is to have an Indigenous-led commercialization of maskwiomin in Membertou, N.S.

"They're going to be able to maybe produce and sell a product line," said Young. "This would be led by members of the community and a reputable corporate office."

Young said the five-year grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research is "huge step in recognizing Indigenous knowledge and supporting the research on it."

The research team includes experts in chemistry, nursing and Mi'kmaw studies from Cape Breton University and pharmacology experts from Dalhousie University.