Traditional Medicine – A Modern Interpretation

Paper presented at the International Conference of Modernisation of Traditional Pharmacy and Medicine, March 2002 Vietnam.
Published on Medical Book 2002/03
by Professor Man Fong Mei (梅万方教授)

Traditional medicine, both in the East and the West, has survived the onslaught of modern science. There are many reasons why traditional medicine has had a resurgence of interest from clinics and patients alike. As in the past few decades, the present struggle for balance between the art of healing and Evidence Based Medicine will define not only the future of medicine but also the whole approach of a global healthcare system as well as dictate the lifestyles of millions. How does traditional medicine adapt to our modern times with a set of entirely different human circumstances, social criteria and the ever scrutinizing eye of the cognitive methodology of science? This is a vital question we must attempt to address if traditional medicine is to become a potent factor in serving the needs of our age.

Modern adaptation means a theoretical rethink as well as research according to modern clinical principles. In this paper I am presenting a pointer to the modernisation of traditional medicine in relation to genetic, energetic and neuro-chemical research, indicating a new direction in medical interpretation.

The Human Genome Project and the Implications for Traditional Medicine

Conventional Western medicine makes the basic assumption that we are all the same in terms of physiology. The Human Genome Project discovered one truth that has revolutionised medical thinking, the recognition that everyone is unique. The genetic code of an individual provides a unique pattern, which expresses itself in both health and illness. This is a philosophy upon which traditional medicine has used as its foundation for thousands of years.

In layman’s terms we all react uniquely whether in health or in illness to drugs, medicine, food, alcohol or other physical or emotional stimuli. The vast genetic coding project that was undertaken internationally, threw important light onto the recognition of unique patterns relating to disease syndrome differentiation as practiced in Traditional Chinese Medicine. This is indeed a bridge between traditional medicine and Western medicine that can create an area of integration with exciting possibilities. For instance, the immune system of the body can be differentiated through genetic finger-printing. An individual reacts differently to chemical or herbal stimuli. Why do some people develop cancer through smoking and some do not? It is because of a missing enzyme, not even a major enzyme, which can cause the difference between life and death through smoking. During his research, Professor Zigels Gansberger of Munich discovered that acupuncture actually stimulates the production of enzymes, this threw in yet another part of the jigsaw puzzle of this complex body pattern.

Search for a new medicine

Why are some of us healthy whilst following a vegetarian diet, while others develop illness by following the same diet? The Traditional Chinese medical theory of the Yin-Yang balance and dividing people into hot or cold syndromes as well as the use of the 5-elements for organ relationship and balancing, can be of great use to modern medical research, by comparative verification of the different genetic codings of different individuals and their reaction to drugs and herbal medicine. We can arrive at a confirmation that the new medicine of the 21st Century may be the merger of traditional medicine and conventional medicine, obviously with the help of advances in medical physics. This also depends on whether we are able to produce a sophisticated technology in terms of both medical diagnostics and imaging, to analyse syndrome patterns and traditional diagnosis such as tongue and pulse and marry this with the newer discoveries of genetics and molecular biology. This is the real objective black box that is required for the process. The Chinese medicine concept of the black box being that the brain of the physician may not be enough. We have to seek the assistance of computer technology and the latest in biophysics as an important part of the search for a new medicine.

Pharmaceutical Modernisation of Traditional Medicine is also a major step required for east-west medical integration. In the modernisation of Western pharmacology, research and development focuses on the identification of the active ingredient in an organic substance which is then patentable by the pharmaceutical company. This direction, although efficient for modern pharmaceutical economics, is greatly inhibiting the development of a complex medicine. However, this existing Western medical licensing model is now adopted by medicine control agencies throughout the world, inhibiting the future efficacy and potential of traditional medicines.

Anti-cancer agents for instance may not have one single active ingredient – it may be a certain complex chemical action that will be the more effective anti-cancer drug. This is why Chinese Medicine is now moving ahead, and forward thinking countries such as Laos and Thailand are developing their anti-cancer treatment based on traditional herbal formulae, unhindered by the limitations of only being allowed to license single drugs (and the vast expense that this process entails).

In the case of Leukotriene (receptor antagonist), why is it effective on some asthma patients and not others? If you give Leukotriene to a patient whose genetic pattern may not be suitable for the drug, the patient might not be helped and also may develop side effects. Once again, the major pitfall of Western medicine is that it assumes that all patients are physiologically the same and this explains why many modern drugs based single ingredient medicines produce such a wide spectrum of side effects.

Western medicine identifies the pathogens and creates drugs to fight disease, with the possible result of causing greater imbalance in the body, which may lead to a new set of problems. Traditional medicine looks holistically at the pattern of the patient and therefore links the physiology of the patient from the stage of health to the present state of the disease and also charts the development of disease in terms of a change of syndrome. Treatment is then based upon the unique and individual reversal required to return to good health by attacking both the symptoms and the cause of illness simultaneously, whilst strengthening the body to help itself.

In order to modernise traditional pharmacology, besides a systemic identification of the biochemistry of each herb, we need to propose a new model of pharmaceutical research capable of dealing with complex formulations, in order to embrace effective traditional medicines.

It is impossible for us to look at which ingredient or ingredients within a Chinese herbal formulae is responsible for the efficacy of treatment – therefore research in complex herbal formulae should focus on identifying not only the individual herbs or ingredients but also the major chemical reaction between ingredients. This will form a new basis for research and development and hopefully the medicine licensing system will adapt to and accept this new model. If not, we run the risk of bureaucracy tying our hands together and public health suffering as a consequence.

This new medical paradigm will arrive in our 21st Century. Traditional medicine will be a major factor in transforming conventional medicine. The catalyst is in modern technology and biophysics that provides the link in this integration. Another very important factor, which we have not dealt with in detail, is the link of disease with lifestyle and everyday living. This again places traditional medicine, which has long observed the human body in patterns both in health and illness, as a major contributor to modern healthcare.

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