New pharmaceutical products based on plants used in traditional Cook Island remedies could be on sale within two years, following research carried out at UNSW.

Dr Graham Matheson, who grew up in the Cook Islands and is now an emergency physician in Sydney, is undertaking a PhD at UNSW about the plants.

His interest in traditional remedies was ignited in 2003 after two sporting teammates made spectacular recoveries from serious bone fractures after they used traditional plant-based remedies.

"One mate was facing the possibility of having his foot amputated after he suffered a leg fracture that led to compartment syndrome, a complication that causes tissue death in a limb due to a lack of oxygenated blood supply," Matheson recalls.

Despite being advised not to run again, the man sought treatment from the Islands' Koutu Nui (tribal chiefs) and made a full recovery, playing soccer and rugby the next year.

Dr Matheson recognised, as a doctor and a Cook Islander, he was uniquely placed to assess the potential of the remedy with evidence-based medicine.

He sought and gained permission from the tribal chiefs to conduct the research and established a company that permits the traditional owners to share in financial benefits arising from the commercialization of his research. Since then, international efforts have been stepped up to stop biopiracy, or the misappropriation of genetic resources and Indigenous knowledge.

His work with UNSW Professor Bill Walsh, who heads the Surgical & Orthopaedic Research Laboratories at the Prince of Wales Hospital, has shown that extract from one plant had "dramatic" results, promoting large amounts of new bone formation within a week.

An extract from three other plants applied to the skin can improve wound healing and repair ageing skin.

Dr Matheson hopes there will ultimately be a new industry for the Islands, with the first product likely to be an anti-ageing one.

Dr Matheson, the Koutu Nui and UNSW are major shareholders in the company, Cimtech.

Read the story in the Sydney Morning Herald.

See the  Cimtech video here.