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  • Writer's pictureSri Govindaraju

Kanuka Honey Researcher Answers the Big Questions

In 2020 The Experiment Company (TEC) was founded and set out to better understand the qualities of kanuka honey. Now, they are nearing completion of an innovative testing method which they hope can not only better define the unique New Zealand honey, but highlight its valuable qualities. We sit down with TEC founder and chief operating officer Sri Govindaraju to find out more about what they have learned thus far, where they hope the future of this research takes them, and how the apiculture industry can benefit.

Sri Govindaraju, founder and chief operating officer of The Experiment Company, says their research into a chemical definition for kanuka honey as well as its immunostimulatory properties is progressing and laboratory testing should be available in season 2024/25.

Q. Why is it essential to conduct kanuka honey research?

SG: Researching kanuka honey is vital for understanding its properties, benefits, and potential applications across various domains, from health and agriculture to economics and the environment. Research can help verify and quantify these benefits, potentially leading to new medical applications. Our research so far has demonstrated that it has high immune stimulatory properties.

Investigating its properties further and potential uses can open up new markets and economic opportunities for beekeepers and producers. It might lead to the development of new products or industries. Moreover, research findings can build trust among consumers by providing scientific evidence supporting the claimed benefits of kanuka honey. This can increase its demand and usage.

What has your research demonstrated thus far?

Dr. Swapna Gannabathula’s previous studies have proven that kanuka honey has a type of glycoprotein present called Arabinogalactan protein (AGP), which exhibits immunostimulatory properties.

TEC has picked up her work where she had left it and added some more research components, which includes kanuka chemical markers, cytokines and tyrosinase inhibition assay research.

We tried and tested the gel electrophoresis AGP method that she has used in her past work to check for repeatability and reproducibility, so that we could validate it for commercial use. However, the validation has not been successful. We then pivoted and tried another method, the ‘disk diffusion assay method’, and after some trial and error, we finally figured out a test process that could reliably produce the same results within range. However, the AGP test alone is not enough to determine the authenticity of kanuka honey. So we have developed a chemical markers method after testing numerous samples. Although this area will be a continuous innovation for the coming year or two, until we start collating data from samples around the country and determining patterns and trends.

The Experiment Company science team in the lab. Founder Sunil Pinnamaneni, right, along with lead scientist Dr Swapna Gannabathula, centre, and Ye Liu at left. TEC need more kanuka honey samples submitted this season to help improve their research.

We want to continue the investigation on cytokines and TNF-a in kanuka honey and present scientific evidence about their potential benefits to immune health and how they can be applied to new products and development.

What are AGPs, and what is their function?

Arabinogalactan proteins, aka AGPs, are a specific type of glycoprotein that exhibits potent immunomodulatory properties. They are a stable compound and don’t change over time. They are bioactive proteins found in the cell walls of plants.

AGP has been scientifically proven to be immunostimulatory, meaning it has the ability to stimulate the immune system. They are a rich source of pro-inflammatory substance and release a cytokine called macrophages from the immune system. Macrophages are highly specialised cells that can detect and destroy harmful bacteria while activating the pro-inflammatory process.

Are these AGPs present in any other honeys? Are they in mānuka honey?

AGPs are found in all honeys, although they are found most abundant in kanuka honey, followed by kamahi and manuka honeys. Abundancy in New Zealand honey ranges from one to 100 mg/10g.

How will your AGP findings in kanuka honey benefit the industry, including beekeepers and exporters?

A handful of operations are already playing in the kanuka honey space. They are selling it domestically or exporting it to parts of the USA, Southeast Asia, Japan, and Middle East.

Now that the research has shown what AGPs can do, the industry needs to understand how this can help motivate the end consumer to buy a jar of kanuka honey, what its benefits are and how honey sellers can use it to market their product. The exporters/brand owners selling kanuka honey as a finished product to consumers can use these findings to let the customers know how much AGP content is present in their batch of honey.

Tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of beehives are placed on land to gather kanuka honey every summer and The Experiment Company hopes to bring greater value to that product – but they will need samples from the coming season to analyze.

At this stage, we know that there are regional variances in the amount of AGPs present in kanuka honey. We see the long-term benefit of working with organisations like Kanuka Science Group – which has helped fund much of the research thus far – to create an AGP rating system from which the beekeepers and exporters can benefit. They will be able to use this trademarked rating system at their point of sale or on their labels to educate the end consumer. Hopefully, this will increase the demand for higher AGP-rating products and ultimately increase the price of this uniquely New Zealand honey, leaving more dollars in the beekeeper's pockets.

This sort of rating system and chemical definition will sound awfully familiar to the Kiwi honey industry. What have you learned from the mānuka honey story – including the pitfalls – which can be applied to this kanuka journey?

This is only the beginning of kanuka honey testing, and we believe there will be lot of learning from our first version of AGP rating and the definition of kanuka honey. It won’t be a perfect definition from the launch, but as we push forward and collect more data, we will get better at it.

What is your innovation here?

Our innovation lies in creating and developing the analytical instrument to quantify AGPs present in a honey sample.

The disk diffusion assay method has been around since the 1940s. TEC has taken this method and modified it to suit the AGP test requirements. When the test method was validated for reproducibility and repeatability, we encountered some hurdles with quantifying the readings of the AGPs from the assay plate. That’s when we came up with the initial design of the analytical instrument to help make our life easier to report the results with more accuracy and reliability.

Where do you think this research and innovation will lead?

When we embarked on this project, our vision and mission were to develop a reliable test method that the beekeepers and producers could request to test their honeys. In the process, we tripped up a few times, which took us on a slightly different path than expected and with that came plenty more learnings and findings. We are excited to roll out the AGP test method. Once this has been executed and finds its own feet, we will want to pursue more research into kanuka honey, extraction and isolation of the AGPs, more applied research, clinical trials, and some product development.

Could The Experiment Company be on the verge of determining properties of the kanuka bush that will bring greater value to honey producers?

You mentioned Dr Swapna in Auckland earlier, but you are speaking to us from Dubai, so can you tell us about the TEC team and how all the work comes together?

My husband, Sunil Pinnamaneni, and I are living in UAE temporarily as he works on projects involving research of local honeys. Together, we founded TEC and Sunil has been managing the kanuka research virtually from the UAE, including developing the project’s vision, guidelines and commercialising the research. Prior to this role Sunil spent 10 years in the New Zealand honey industry, in various science and research type roles.

Dr Swapna Gannabathula works out of Auckland and has studied New Zealand honeys since 2011. She has a few helpers in her lab too and between Auckland and Taupo they carry out all the groundwork.

Myself, I assist with keeping the wheels in motion! From being the face of the company, to filling out the grant applications and keeping up to speed on all things operations wise.

How has TECs research been funded to date, and how do you foresee it being funded as we advance?

We have been lucky that we were able to bootstrap a bit ourselves, plus some funds through Kanuka Science Group (which includes Pinnamaneni and Govindaraju’s honey company Zealandia Honey, as well as Doc O’Connor of Koa Honey Ltd) and the balance funded through Callaghan Innovation, who pitched in 40% of our R&D costs last year. We have just been awarded another seed grant by them, which is a co-funded grant too, where they contribute up to 50%. We will use these funds to design the prototype and conduct some validation work. We have applied for more grants and are awaiting results.

We have plans to raise capital next year and aim to have some funds by mid-2024. We haven’t fully formulated who our ideal investors will be. Whether they will be angel investors, or the bank is yet to be decided.

I have been accepted into an incubator program hosted by the Ministry of Awesome, a start-up supporter based in Ōtautahi Christchurch. With their help, we have begun working on streamlining the business, metrics and putting a structure together that is appealing to potential investors.

What does the future for TEC and kanuka honey look like in your mind?

While we are close to wrapping up our project on kanuka honey R&D, research never ends; there will always be something that needs proving, finding, or analysing! We want to pursue further research into other native honeys and bioactive compounds from New Zealand and around the world. Our long-term goal is to be known as the incubator for honey and therapeutics research.

How can the industry be involved and help you?

Due to poor weather, last season was a write-off, so we didn’t get many samples from the beekeepers to analyze. With an El-Nino weather pattern on the way, there’s potential for a bumper crop of kanuka honey. So, when beekeepers have harvested and finished extraction of their 2023/24 crop, we want at least 50 or more samples from around the country to complete a final validation on the test method and the analytical instrument.

We want the beekeepers, manufacturers, and exporters to spread the word about kanuka honey testing which will be available to them from the 24/25 season on. They are welcome to contact us with any questions about the science and research.

We will be present at the National Fieldays and Apiculture New Zealand conference in June 2024 to showcase our product and innovation.

We want beekeepers to stay engaged with us. If you are a kanuka honey producer, get in contact so you can be part of the journey!

Sri Govindaraju can be contacted via email: sri@experiment.nz


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