Traditional Chinese medicine to save lives

Updated: 2012-08-03 06:46

By Fong Yun-Wah(HK Edition)

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Traditional Chinese medicine to save lives

Of the long history of the Chinese nation, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has been one of the most treasured cultural heritages. Only at the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), did foreign missionaries bring Western knowledge and medicine to China. Over the 5,000 years before the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), our ancestors survived, relying mainly on herbal medicine, acupuncture, aijiu, orthopedic surgery and other ancient medical practices. Our nation has been able to prevent most diseases (especially various infectious diseases) through preventive care, and it has thrived with the help of tai chi, qigong (Chinese breathing exercise), martial arts, meditation, and other sports. In addition, it has cultivated spiritual health by practicing all kinds of Chinese musical instruments, calligraphy and painting, and other recreational activities. The total population of 1.3 billion markedly proves the fact that TCM is indeed effective.

In a recent article Why Space Heroes Praise Traditional Chinese Medicine in People's Daily Overseas Edition, the three astronauts of Shenzhou-9 spacecraft pointed out some of the virtues of these traditional methods. They noted that the specially formulated herbal medicine they took before taking off to space, together with acupuncture, massage and other therapies for health restoration and maintenance were the key factors in their triumphant completion of their space mission.

As the result of a long history of continuous theorizing and practice in fighting diseases, TCM is undoubtedly a precious legacy of the Chinese nation, and its value should not and cannot be demeaned. The magical efficacy of acupuncture has been widely proven, and was included in the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization. Acupuncture is a methodology that treats patients by manipulating thin, solid needles that have been inserted into acupuncture points in the skin, correcting imbalances in the flow of qi through channels known as meridians. TCM is mainly concerned with the identification of functional entities, which regulate digestion, breathing, aging etc. While health is perceived as harmonious interaction of these entities and the outside world, disease is interpreted as a disharmony in the interaction. TCM diagnosis consists of tracing symptoms to "patterns" of an underlying disharmony, mainly by palpitating the pulse and inspecting the tongue. Meanwhile, herbal therapy accounts for the majority of TCM treatment, and has been renowned for having few side effects. TMC has its advantages, but there are also inadequacies, especially in the area of scientific research and documentation. The potency and side effects of some herbs are poorly understood by TCM practitioners, sometimes they even cause fatal errors. But with the support of more rigorous scientific research, TCM would shine.

Nevertheless, some ancient TCM prescriptions can be of great value today. For instance, Tamiflu developed by Roche has been used to treat and prevent influenza A virus and influenza B virus infection since 1999. According to Roche, shikimic acid which is only effectively isolated from Chinese star aniseed (an ancient cooking spice and a herb in TCM grown in Guangxi and three other provinces in China) is the key to the production of Tamiflu.

Recently, Professor Tu Youyou, a Chinese medical scientist, pharmaceutical chemist, and a life-long member of the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, was awarded the 2011 Lasker Award in Clinical Medicine for discovering artermisinin (known as qinghaosu in China) and dihydroartemisinin, used to treat malaria, which saved millions of lives in the developing world.

It is now known that a Shenzhen-based task force set up by the Peking University and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, led by Professor Ye Tao has developed a new anticancer drug from natural products; Dr Zhiwei Chen, director of the AIDS Institute of the University of Hong Kong Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, has partnered with Dr David Ho, director of Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center and Irene Diamond Professor at the Rockefeller University, in developing a new anti-HIV vaccine; a research team led by Professor Li Min of the Baptist University of Hong Kong School of Chinese Medicine has effectively applied the Chinese herbal medicine Uncaria rhynchophylla (gouteng) in the treatment of Parkinson's disease. Moreover, some European and American pharmaceutical companies are conducting research on traditional and alternative medicines, including Tibetan and other ancient prescriptions widely used by ethnic minorities, hoping to invent new drugs to cure rare diseases.

I sincerely hope that, under the leadership of the medical scientists and pharmaceutical experts, researchers can effectively make use of resources (including funding from the central government and donations from private enterprises and charitable funds), and cooperate with foreign research institutions and adopt conventional medicine research method in the quest for integrative medicine in the prevention and cure of all kinds of diseases. Suppose we invest a billion dollars in the next five years in inventing one to two new drugs for diseases like cancer, Hepatitis B, diabetes, HIV/AIDS and other Hard to Treat Diseases, billions of medical expenses can be saved, citizens' lives and health can also benefit, and productivity will thus be ensured.

May experts carry forward research in TCM with innovative minds, and offer a new and hopeful path to the health of mankind. This has also been my dream over the years.

The author is chairman of the Fong Shu Fook Tong Foundation and Hip Shing Hong Group of Companies.

(HK Edition 08/03/2012 page3)