Some members of Rhododendron genus are traditionally used as medicinal plants for arthritis, acute and chronic bronchitis, asthma, pain, inflammation, rheumatism, hypertension and metabolic diseases. To the best of our knowledge, there is no report on the protective effects of R. oldhamii leaf extract on non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) in vivo and in vitro. In this study, the effects of R. oldhamii leaf extract on inhibiting the free fatty acid (FFA)-induced accumulation of fat in HepG2 cells and on improving fatty liver syndrome in mice with high fat diet (HFD)-induced NAFLD were investigated. For the in vitro assay, HepG2 cells were treated with FFAs (oleate/palmitate = 2:1) with or without treatment with R. oldhamii leaf ethyl acetate (EtOAc) fraction to observe lipid accumulation using Nile red and oil red O stains. For the in vivo assay, C57BL/6 mice were randomly assigned to three groups (n = 5), including the normal diet group, the HFD group and the HFD+EtOAc group. After 11 weeks, body weight, serum biochemical indices and the mRNA expressions of the liver tissue, as well as the outward appearance, weight and histopathological analysis of liver and adipose tissues were evaluated. Among the fractions derived from R. oldhamii leaf, the EtOAc fraction exhibited a strong fat-accumulation inhibitory activity. Following reverse-phase high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), four specific phytochemicals, including (2R, 3R)-astilbin (AS), hyposide (HY), guaijaverin (GU) and quercitrin (QU), were isolated and identified from the EtOAc fraction of R. oldhamii leaf extract. Among them, AS and HY showed excellent fat-accumulation inhibitory activity. Thus, the EtOAc fraction of R. oldhamii leaf and its derived phytochemicals have great potential in preventing FFA-induced fat accumulation. In addition, the EtOAc fraction of R. oldhamii leaf significantly improved fatty liver syndrome and reduced total cholesterol (TC) and triglyceride (TG) in HFD-induced NAFLD mice at a dosage of 200 mg/kg BW. These results demonstrated that the methanolic extracts from R. oldhamii leaf have excellent inhibitory activities against fat accumulation and anti-NAFLD activities and thus have great potential as a natural health product.
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