Traditional Chinese medicine: promising or pseudoscience?

Science and Technology

In January, BBC Icons ran a vote for the 20th century’s most important and influential figures in different fields of human endeavour. Together with three high-profile figures – Alan Turing, Marie Curie and Albert Einstein, Youyou Tu, a Chinese pharmaceutical chemist, was selected into one of seven programs for scientists. She was well-known as one of the 2015 Nobel Prize winners in Physiology or Medicine, for discovering artemisinin and dihydroartemisinin that can effectively treat malaria and save millions of lives, especially in the developing countries.

BBC Icons comments that ‘she looked back as well as forward’, as she was inspired by ancient Chinese medicine text. Her research was painstaking and carried out in an under-resourced environment. During the Vietnam war, she was assigned to a secret military project to develop the treatments against malaria. Firstly, she gathered and reviewed 2,000 kinds of herbal, animal and mineral prescriptions for either internal or external uses from traditional Chinese medicine literature and folk recipes. Through countless experiments, she narrowed down to Qinghao, a very common herb in tradition prescriptions that was recorded to cease the recurrence of malaria fever. During the time preparing Qinghao extracts and testing their efficacy, no promising result appeared among hundreds of samples.  Returning back to the literature, she found that the prescription requires to wring out the juice from Qinghao, instead of boiling it in water as the convention. This slight difference in the extraction temperature eventually led to the Nobel Prize. On 4th October, 1971, the 191st sample – the neutral portion of the Qinghao ethyl ether extract, was found 100% effective against malaria in rodents.

Youyou Tu attributes her achievement to the rich resources of traditional Chinese medicine. In fact, recent years have seen a growing interest in Chinese medicine globally. Top universities like Yale and Oxford launched research projects to unlock its potential. In the same year as Youyou was awarded the Nobel Prize, Yung-Chi Cheng, a professor of pharmacology with his team in Yale, developed a herbal cancer treatment based on an ancient Chinese medicine formula and published the result in Nature. At the University of Minnesota, a pig heart continued beating in the lab for six hours when infused with synthetic bear-bile acid. Bear bile has been used to treat heart pain in Chinese medicine for over a thousand years. On 24th January, the UK government announced new UK-China partnership medical projects over the next three years, including using inspiration from traditional Chinese medicine towards treating or preventing infectious bacterial disease.  

Traditional Chinese medicine has been considered for a long time a mysterious subject, and even pseudoscience. Dating back to the third century B.C., it accumulates knowledge and develops its own system almost all from clinics practices. Plus, based on the ancient philosophy in China – Yinyang balance and five phases, it is documented in jargon that is hard to understand. Chinese medicine is different from modern medicine using pharmaceuticals or surgery. It prefers curing the patient over a long time period with the aid of prescribed diets. Its ultimate goal is more than healing – the emphasis is on balances in your body, improving the quality of life and even strength. That’s why it is often entangled with sports and martial arts, and sometimes exaggerated. In the famous American martial arts film, Kill Bill, Beatrix strikes a pressure point, known as the death-point, to kill Bill in the final battle. This technique has its origins in the acupuncture treatment.

The emphasis is on balances in your body, improving the quality of life and even strength.

Due to the controversy around it, the debate regarding some Chinese medical treatments like cupping and acupuncture remains today. Take cupping for example. Many professional athletes endorse it as a muscle therapy to reduce the pain. In the 2016 Olympic Games, the famous American swimmer, Michael Phelps, won the 4×100-metre relay gold medal with ‘purple dots’ on his shoulder and back from cupping. This therapy creates suction by a cup on the skin to stimulate blood flow, but there is no available scientific evidence to support it from current reviews. On top of that there is no assessment and certification system for therapists or local wellbeing clinics, so practices are not supported by any safety and even hygiene guarantees. Advertisements take advantage of Chinese culture and the history behind its medicine, and promise results that are unsubstantiated. This misleads people to think traditional Chinese medicine is an unreliable and supernatural theory.

There is no doubt that some Chinese therapies and herbal remedies are more affordable and accessible – herbs today can be ordered online and prepared at home, but bear in mind they should not substitute doctor-prescribed pharmaceuticals.  It is still an under-explored field waiting for more discoveries and explanations. Perhaps Youyou’s winding road toward a Nobel Prize gives us a hint. As the Yale professor once said about Chinese medicine in an interview — “Don’t throw out the baby with bath water.”

Image Credit: Xinhua News agency