A Battle for Better Bones: Pearl and Osteoporosis

Osteoporosis is a terribly pervasive disease. Today, the National Institute of Health estimates that half of all women and a quarter of all men over the age of fifty will break a bone because of osteoporosis. The disease quietly thins and weakens bones until they become so fragile that they break very easily. Because of the ‘silent’ nature of osteoporosis, it is extremely hard to catch – usually people are unaware they are inflicted until they’re in the hospital with a fracture or broken bone. Most of the risk factors for osteoporosis are frustratingly out of our control: among these are getting older, being thin, being white or Asian, being female and/or having a family history of osteoporosis. Despite this large minefield of possible causes, a cure for osteoporosis is yet unknown. Our bones are like a calcium bank: they store extra calcium for when our body needs it just as we deposit extra money in a bank for safe keeping.

The cells responsible for transporting calcium into our “bone bank” are called osteoblasts. Osteoblasts are kind of like bankers: they utilize our saved calcium while ensuring enough is saved in our bone bank. Also, osteoblasts increase calcium absorption, which increases bone growth. This is much like interest is paid on any money in an account: the more money we have in the account, the more money we earn from interest payments. Equally, as calcium absorption increases, so does our bone strength. Everyday costs, such as food or gas, require us to use the money saved in the bank. Likewise our bodies use the calcium stored in our bones to perform everyday functions, such as muscle and blood vessel contraction, secretion of hormones and enzymes, and sending messages through the nervous system. Just as we need to withdraw money from the bank to pay for those everyday expenditures, cells called osteoclasts frequently withdraw calcium from our bones to keep everything running. Sometimes we have a particularly expensive month, and have to withdraw more money from the bank than we deposit. Similarly, when we don’t consume enough calcium, our bones become “empty” of the mineral we need to perform everyday functions. This causes our bones to become fragile.

When bank accounts become overdrawn, bankers usually charge a fee, an extra penalty for withdrawing more than we deposit. Osteoporosis is like our bodies overdraw fee. When our body frequently attempts to withdraw calcium from our bones when none is available, we can develop this debilitating disease. Just as too many overdraw fees on any bank account could result in account termination, so osteoporosis can result in bone fractures or even breaks. So how can we prevent this deficiency from occurring, particularly as we grow older and calcium absorption becomes harder for our bodies to perform? Let’s return to our bank account analogy. If we are given an unexpected raise, bonus check or tax refund, it becomes considerably easier to keep that bank account full. Likewise, if we discover a more efficient method of getting calcium to our bones, keeping them full of this pivotal mineral becomes easier. Luckily, recent research shows that pearl could be the raise deficient “bone banks” require. French scientists have been testing the relationship between human bone cells and pearl since 1990.

They discovered that when mother-of-pearl pieces were inserted into a layer of osteoblast cells, the bone cells multiplied until they formed a complete bone sequence. In another study in 2003, these scientists found that inserting pearl “tooth filling” inside sheep’s tooth cavity can make existing tooth stronger in addition to stimulating new tooth growth. In other words, not only did the cells deposit more calcium into our “bone bank”, but the pearl began to work like a kind of mutual fund, increasing the number of bone cells without superfluous deposits! Chinese scientist Dr. Y Shen and colleagues discovered similar results in their own studies.8 They examined the bone-building power of pearl in a simulated culture of body fluid and cells. Not only did the pearl stimulate osteoblast proliferation, but when compared to another osteogenic calcium source, the pearl was more effective in building strong, healthy bone.

Furthermore, French scientists have shown that pearl can reduce the rate of bone resorption.9 Chinese scientists also showed that calcium from pearl is more easily absorbed to the human body than other commonly used calcium sources.10 Together, these studies show that pearl might be used effectively for treating and preventing osteoporosis. No drug can accomplish this today.

Chinese scientists explored the possibility of using pearl to treat animals with osteoporosis. Hongfu Wang and his associates from the Shanghai Medical School Senior Medicine Research Center studied the effect of pearl on mice with osteoporosis.11.12 Some mice were given a pearl formulation for 90 days; others were not. They discovered that the mice that received the pearl formulation experienced significantly increased bone calcium content, enhanced bone mineral density, and higher total bone weight in comparison to the mice that did not. This study indicates that pearl may be a good treatment for mice with osteoporosis. Pearl’s ability to treat osteoporosis in humans is still clinically unknown. While nothing can yet be proven, the prospect of pearl as a combatant against osteoporosis is intriguing, and our eyes will be peeled for further research.

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