Hugo Fearnley of Whitby, England is studying the potential of bee-produced medicines for the treatment of human diseases. Fearnley, CEO of BeeVital and Director of the Apiceutical Research Centre (ARC), recently earned a Churchill Travelling Fellowship to fund his research and coalition-building in four African countries.
One potentially promising compound for Fearnley is propolis, sometimes called bee glue: a mixture of plant resins and wax used for structural purposes in hives. Researchers are studying the roles of propolis in insect disease resistance and the evolutionary benefits of propolis for bees. But Fearnley aims his studies on propolis for treatment of malaria, leishmania, and sleeping sickness, diseases among the most prevalent in Africa.
According to researchers at the University of Minnesota, several studies have evidenced that “propolis has strong hepatoprotective, antitumor, antioxidative, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties.” Scientists are working to find out if propolis can discourage infections in humans or act as an antibiotic. Fearnley’s BeeVital specifically focuses on propolis for periodontal issues, skin problems, wound healing, ulcers, immune deficiency diseases, and herpes simplex virus.
The pharmacological benefits of propolis for human health are most widely recognized in Eastern Europe, Asia, and South America.
The interest in propolis runs in the Fearnley family. Fearnley’s father has researched the medicinal nature of propolis for decades. Fearnley’s company BeeVital won a government research award to study future licensable bee-based medicines. Fearnley spoke recently at The First International Conference on Apiceutical Research, which focused on the potential of propolis.
Other bee products the pair cite as harboring medicinal properties include honey, royal jelly, pollen, and bee venom. Fearnley calls the beehive a “flying pharmacy.”
Fearnley’s recent project, which has led him to travel to Cameroon, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Zambia, is called Bee Pharma Africa. Bee Pharma Africa will not only conduct the research, but also join scientists, bee product producers, and health and governmental agencies “to work together to further understand, develop, and deliver honey bee-derived medicines and health support,” with particular emphasis on these three major protozoal diseases.
Bee Pharma Africa, with its consortium and through the ARC and Nature’s Laboratory, Ltd., aims to collect, profile, and test samples in the primary regions of interest. It also pledges to develop local systems of delivery and promote beekeeping for economic development.
Bee Pharma Africa’s approach is a local one. The ubiquity of beekeeping, critical to many rural African economies, means bee products are readily available. Local bee products might also be more effective in their original settings. For example, the ARC says that propolis contains “chemicals and properties that relate to the local environmental disease patterns.” Where sleeping sickness is prevalent, propolis contains anti-trypanosomal elements to combat the parasites that cause the disease. This is something Fearnley wants to learn more about.
In addition to the availability of bees and local specificity, Bee Pharma Africa hopes its consortium will build a base for local research in rural Africa and stimulate economic development in the beekeeping field.
Kenya, Malawi, and Ghana are potential future targets for building a Bee Pharma Africa consortium for this research.