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Home >> Business
UPDATED: 12:19, June 17, 2006
TCM needs no clinical proof that it works
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When West meets East, a debate seems inevitable.

The issue this time is medicine. To be precise, it is traditional Chinese medicine or TCM.

Cancer Research, a journal supported by the American Association for Cancer Research, in its May issue published a cover story on TCM for cancer prevention and treatment.

Celastrol, an active compound extracted from the bark of the "Thunder of God Vine" (Tripterygium wilfordii Hook F), has been used for years as a natural remedy for inflammatory conditions. Following clinical studies, scientists in Wuhan of China, and Detroit of US, have reported that Celastrol is a natural proteasome inhibitor that has great potential for cancer prevention and treatment.

Their studies that use Western research methodologies, is viewed by many as the only way for TCM to be accepted as scientific and applicable in the 21st century.

But how scientific is this approach?

The article has set off a debate, and many people including doctors have questioned the value of these studies and whether TCM should undergo such checks to be seen as modern.

Western medical theories began to enter China as early as the 17th century. But it was not until the late 19th century that Western medicine took root in China. Today, traditional Chinese medicine has been marginalized, at least in urban China, where hospitals adopt Western models and medical schools train more doctors well versed in Western rather than in Chinese medicine.

Although State policy still encourages a combination of Chinese and Western medicine, in reality, more patients today consult doctors trained in Western medicine rather than in TCM.

In my family, my mother is an expert in mixing herbal medicines. I can barely handle the pots, while my son has no clue whatsoever.

The fact that we now take less of the pot-boiled herbal drinks when we are sick, does not mean we do not believe in TCM. For flu symptoms, for example, we look to TCM remedies as our first choice. Thanks to modern conveniences, we no longer have to boil and distil as in the old days.

However, there is a widespread disenchantment with TCM, especially in medical circles. These doctors believe that TCM is not scientific. They seek to apply scientific methodology current in the West to study traditional medicine.

Since Western medicine is predominant in the country now, TCM is faced with a huge dilemma. Should it be protected as an aspect of our cultural heritage? Should it adapt to Western methodologies in order to survive and grow? Or, should it be allowed to go its own course?

These questions have been raging for years, with no consensus yet in sight.

Add to this the conspiracy theory that claims that adding scientific elements to the TCM approach is simply an attempt to convert it into Western medicine, and to eventually destroy it. This theory sees clinical studies as efforts to threaten the very existence of TCM.

Of course, it is unfair to lump all those against Western-style research into the same conspiracy theory camp.

There are TCM scholars who argue it has its own theoretic background. Its dialectic tradition emphasizes the uniqueness of each and every patient, and the doctor's prescription responds to the individual's special needs. The interaction between medicine and patient is more important than the medicine per se. TCM is different from Western medicine. Misunderstood by many as an empirical system, TCM emphasizes treating people, not illnesses, and it has been tested by recorded cases for more than 2,000 years.

Western style research to test TCM's scientific properties is not appropriate, argue its practitioners. "Can experiments on mice be transplanted into humans?"

This debate will continue as long as scientists put TCM through Western-style clinical research and publish their results in world renowned medical journals.

But TCM doctors, especially those in the countryside, will still feel a patient's pulse, look at their tongue and prescribe their medicines.

Growing world interest in TCM will probably ensure that Chinese herbs and traditional treatments will gradually be accepted in the West.

With rapid globalisation and technological development, the two systems of medicine have more opportunities to be exposed to, and interact with, one another.

But I do hope they are not going to merge since they come from two totally different schools of medicine.

Already TCM is on track for heritage status and special protection. If it does not want to look obsolete, it has to find a way to grow.

I do hope the two systems of medicine will meet and complement one another. I hope TCM will survive and develop its own path, given its indispensable role in our civilization. Like many of our cultural treasures, it has helped define our Chinese-ness and make us what we are today.

While respecting Western medicine as well as Western sciences, we cannot afford to let all our developments, including TCM, be Westernised. What TCM needs is innovation that can take it forward by leaps and bounds.

Source: China Daily

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