Nothing but the pith will do for herbal researchers

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 July, 2011, 12:00am


The tasteless, pale-looking herb Medulla junci may be unattractive, but it is commonly used in Hong Kong to treat a wide range of emotional and physical problems.

As its Chinese name meaning 'wick herb' implies, the white or pale yellowish-white herb is slender, cylindrical and about 90cm long. The stem, from a plant named Juncus effusus L (Juncaceae), is collected from late summer to autumn, sun dried, the outer part removed and the pith straightened out or tied in a small bundle to become Chinese medicine.

One of 574 herbal medicines listed in Hong Kong's Chinese Medicine Ordinance, it can be used to eliminate excessive 'heart qi', literally 'fire in the heart', which can lead to a range of problems including insomnia and restlessness, difficulties and pain in urination, and ulceration in the mouth or on the tongue.

But it seems people here have been short changed.

Researchers working on the Health Department's Hong Kong Chinese Materia Medica Standards (HKCMMS) project discovered that what was prescribed and sold here was the whole plant rather than just the pith.

The latter contains much higher levels of the active ingredients - dehydroeffusol and effusol - than the rest of the herb.

So the department issued letters to Chinese medicine practitioners and traders to alert them to the research findings and remind them to observe the ordinance, which states that only Medulla junci's stem pith should be purchased and used in herbal preparations.

This Chinese herb is one of 60 commonly used in Hong Kong that possess established safety and quality standards under the HKCMMS project, which was launched in 2002 with the aim of safeguarding public health and ensuring the availability of good quality Chinese medicine. With the project's first three phases completed - and three volumes of the internationally acclaimed 'HKCMM Standards' published in 2005, 2008 and 2010 respectively - the department is now aiming to further develop standards for another 140 herbs by next year.

Research for phase four, which covers 36 herbs, is complete and is expected to be published at the end of this year. Research for phase five has begun.

As before, the principles and parameters for research and laboratory analysis have been laid down clearly and objectively by the project's International Advisory Board, a panel of world renowned experts who evaluate and endorse research results.

To expedite the whole process, other research institutions in the region, like China's National Institute for Food and Drug Control, have been brought in to join the project, which includes research teams from six local universities. China Medical University, Taiwan's first academic institution to provide Chinese medicine and pharmacy programmes, was also recently engaged for sample collection and research under phase five. .

As interest grows in the use of Chinese medicines both in Hong Kong and around the world, a well-established and internationally recognised set of standards for Chinese herbs is expected help ensure that only the safest, highest quality and most effective medicines are made available to consumers.

Information provided by the Health Department