AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINES have for years employed herbs to treat illness and disease, a fact not well known in the country. However, with the arrival of foreign natural health systems, particularly traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), researchers are starting to take notice. Macquarie University is leading the effort, with research into native plant treatments for bacterial infections and inflammation. As with traditional Chinese medicine, indigenous Australian medicine took a holistic approach to healing and it had the strength of age on its side, said Subramanyam Vemulpad, a co-director of the Macquarie University Indigenous Bioresources Research Group. 'As with Chinese medicine, effective cures in the indigenous tradition have filtered through after thousands of years of trial and error,' Dr Vemulpad said. 'The Chinese have, for instance, been using qinghao [sweet wormwood] for more than 2,000 years to treat malaria. Qinghao contains the chemical compound artemisinin, which science now recognises as one of the most powerful anti-malarial compounds available. 'The Aboriginal medical tradition also contains the potential to yield these time-honoured cures. New discoveries will eventually filter into the mainstream. 'Already, we have avenues for postgraduate students to participate in this research. Components of what we are doing are being taught in courses run by the departments of biological sciences, biomolecular sciences, chemistry, health and chiropractic.' Just as TCM has an important cultural position in China, Aboriginal medicine features strongly in many indigenous communities in Australia. Dr Vemulpad said some Aboriginal elders refused to take western medicine because they were suspicious of its effects. Macquarie's research into native medicine aims to advise medical practitioners on when they can safely substitute western cures with traditional alternatives. Furthermore, native medicine offered what some would describe as culturally sensitive care. Dr Vemulpad said the research was also aimed at tackling real Aboriginal health problems. 'One problem that has come to light in discussions regarding the health of indigenous people is the impact of repeated streptococcal infection and its contribution to kidney disease,' he said. 'This and other skin conditions caused by bacterial infections are the most obvious targets of our research.'