A traditional Chinese folk medicine used for treating bone fractures and joint diseases may be just as effective for managing osteoporosis as commercially available medications, but without their potential side effects.

Sambucus williamsii Image: The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Epidemiological studies in China suggest that almost 70 million people suffer from osteoporosis and more than 210 million have low bone mineral density. Although conventional medicines for osteoporosis such as estrogen replacement therapy (ERT), bisphosphonates (BIs) and selective estrogen receptor modulators (SERMs) offer promising therapeutic benefits, these drugs are expensive and their side effects can be serious. For example, the long-term use of ERT is associated with an increased risk of developing breast and endometrial cancers. BIs increase the risk of atypical fractures. And SERMs are linked with an increased risk of developing blood clots.

Associate Professor Dr. Man-sau Wong and her colleagues at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University have been studying the use of Chinese medicine in the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis for more than a decade. Her team is currently focused on determining the therapeutic impact, metabolic properties and active ingredients of Sambucus williamsii HANCE (SWH), or North China red elder, a herb with bone healing properties.

In one experiment, the team compared the effects of SWH extract to two commercial drugs on female rats that had their ovaries removed. After 12 weeks, the SWH extract increased the mineral density and improved the micro-architecture of rat bone in a way similar to the effects of one medication while enhancing the biomechanical strength of rat bone in a way similar to the second.

“These results indicate that the bioactive fraction of SWH has the dual advantages of Western and Chinese medicines on improving bone quality,” says Dr Wong. Moreover, unlike one of the two drugs, the SWH extract did not stimulate the growth of rat endometrial tissues.

By the end of 2014, the researchers hope to identify several chemical compounds responsible for the therapeutic benefits of SWH and to determine their metabolic pathways. So far, the team has identified two potential active ingredients and their underlying molecular mechanisms.

“We hope that our study can provide scientific evidence for developing the bioactive fraction of SWH as a new agent for managing osteoporosis,” Dr. Wong concludes.



For further information contact:
Associate Professor Dr Man-sau Wong
Department of Applied Biology and Chemical Technology
The Hong Kong Polytechnic University
Email: man-sau.wong@polyu.edu.hk