Scientists are examining the potential of a substance extracted from the leaves of coralberry – a common seasonal ornamental plant – to treat asthma. The results are promising, but they are yet to be replicated in humans.

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Ardisia crenata, more commonly known as “coralberry” or “Christmas berry,” may provide a new, more effective treatment for asthma.

Asthma is a chronic disease characterized by inflammation of the lungs and narrowing down of the airways, causing breathing difficulties that can sometimes become severe. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at present, around 18.4 million adults and 6.2 million children are diagnosed with asthma in the United States.

This respiratory disease has no known cure, but it is manageable with consistent treatment that helps to control asthma symptoms either in the long-term or in the short-term, providing quick relief.

Now, researchers from the University of Bonn in Germany are looking into the possibility of using a substance extracted from Ardisia crenata, which is more commonly known as “coralberry” or “Christmas berry,” in the treatment of asthma.

Coralberry is a decorative plant whose bright, reddish (hence “coral”) fruit is brought forth in winter, making it a popular seasonal plant. It originated from regions of East Asia but has spread to the U.S. and Australia, and it is now often a staple of garden centers around the world.

Dr. Daniela Wenzel, from the University of Bonn – together with colleagues from both there and complementary institutions based in the United Kingdom – has found that a substance found in coralberry leaves may be more effective in asthma treatment than traditional medication.

Their findings were reported in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Coralberry leaves contain a substance called FR900359, which studies have suggested may interact with Gq proteins, a type of protein involved in cell signaling. The team notes that these proteins also play a role in determining how lung muscles contract.

“This compound [FR900359] inhibits critical signaling molecules in our cells, the Gq proteins,” explains Dr. Wenzel.

They also noted that the substance’s modulation of cellular signaling pathways can effectively prevent the spasmodic contraction of the lung muscles, which is a typical symptom of asthma.

FR900359’s action on the cell signaling pathways inhibits production of Gq proteins, which allows the compound to prevent and relieve these muscular spasms.

And more importantly, the substance extracted from coralberry is more effective in soothing these symptoms than the most commonly used asthma drug, salbutamol.

“When we inhibit the activation of Gq proteins with FR900359,” says study co-author Dr. Michaela Matthey, also from the University of Bonn, “we achieve a much greater effect [than with traditional drugs].”

The researchers tested the effects of FR900359 on mice with asthma, and the results were quite remarkable.

We were able to prevent the animals from reacting to allergens such as house dust mite with a narrowing of the bronchia.”

Dr. Daniela Wenzel

She explains that the mice did not develop any significant side effects, since the active substance could be administered as an inhalable compound, which means that very little of it was absorbed directly into the bloodstream.

Although these results are very promising, the scientists warn that the substance has, as yet, only been tested on mice in the laboratory, and extensive further research will be necessary before it can be used as a viable treatment for humans.

Tests using human lung muscle cells suggest that FR900359’s effects could potentially extend to humans diagnosed with asthma, but confirming this in clinical trials will be a lengthy process and may even take years, the researchers say.