Traditional Chinese medicine teaches that some people have hot constitutions, making them prone to fever and inflammation in parts of the body, while others tend to have cold body parts and get chills.
Such Eastern-rooted ideas have been developed over thousands of years of experience with patients. But they aren’t backed up by much scientific data.
Now researchers in some the most highly respected universities in China, and increasingly in Europe and the U.S., are wedding Western techniques for analyzing complex biological systems to the Chinese notion of seeing the body as a networked whole. The idea is to study how genes or proteins interact throughout the body as a disease develops, rather than to examine single genes or molecules.
“Traditional Chinese medicine views disease as complete a pattern as possible,” says Jennifer Wan, a professor in the school of biological sciences at the University of Hong Kong who studies traditional Chinese medicine, or TCM. “Western medicine tends to view events or individuals as discrete particles.” But one gene or biological marker alone typically doesn’t yield comprehensive understanding of disease, she says.
To reach these goals, the overall quality of research on traditional Chinese medicine must improve. With studies of Chinese herbal remedies, for instance, rarely are scientists expected to provide authentication of herbs they’re studying, which makes it difficult to know what’s really in the concoctions. This hurdle also makes it harder for other scientists to replicate the findings, says Qihe Xu, a professor in renal medicine at King’s College London. Dr. Xu served as the coordinator of a recent 200-scientist consortium to study good practices for studying traditional Chinese medicine, dubbed GP-TCM.