What genetics reveals about traditional Chinese medicine


The 2015 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, shared by Chinese scientist Youyou Tu for her development of an effective antimalarial treatment derived from the wormwood plant Artemisia annual, put the ancient practice of Chinese medicine under a spotlight. It showed the positive side of combining more recent scientific methods with traditional medicine.

But a light was also shined on long-held concerns about traditional medicines.

Ancient healing meets modern medicine

Chinese traditional medicine, which includes the use of acupuncture and complex mixes of herbs, is ancient, with practices that reach back thousands of years. Over the past few decades, these practices have become popular in the West, particularly in the US and Europe. Mainstream medical institutions, such as a complementary and alternative health program at the University of New Hampshire, today study how herbal preparations are made and what benefits they might provide patients. Alternative medicine information is also available from a range of reputable sources, including the National Institutes of Health, which has its own National Institute of Complementary and Integrative Health.

Other organizations are not so reliable. “Disappointed with your current healthcare?” asks one website that sells what it calls Chinese herbs. “Traditional Chinese medicine has helped millions of people with their health concerns.”

Traditional Chinese practices, if used correctly, may be the original “precision medicine,” if you ask their practitioners. Typically, a “patient” will visit with a traditional specialist, who will concoct a cocktail of sorts, a suspension of a wide variety of herbs, spices and other (usually) organics that is supposed to be tailored to that patient’s ills.

Impacting genes

Can Chinese medicine impact the human genome, and deliver on its promises? A variety of individual responses to these therapies might be explained by epigenetic influences on gene expression.

  • A Korean research team found in mice that stimulating a specific acupuncture point associated with neurostimulation and Parkinson’s disease changed the expression levels of 799 genes. These genes could become biomarkers that indicate changes in neuronal activity and possibly point to treatments for the disease.
  • A Chinese group found changes in mRNA and protein expression in mouse lung tissue after stimulation of three acupoints with acupuncture needles. These expression changes appear to affect regulation of macromolecular biosynthesis, transportation and metabolism, the team reported.
  • A Taiwanese team analyzing 3,294 medicinal herbs and other compounds found that 36 percent of them worked with histone-modifying enzymes, and one-third of those promoted chromatin condensation, which compacts chromosomes and affects DNA repair and gene expression.

Natural isn’t harmless

Not all traditional medicines are beneficial, however. In fact, any responsible practitioner or specialist will warn that herbal treatments can be hazardous.

Aristolochic acid, which is part of many traditional Chinese preparations for menstrual cramps, rheumatism and (sometimes) weight loss, was also associated with kidney failure and urinary tract cancer, two studies reported.

In addition, traditional Chinese preparations have been found to contain heavy metals and plant toxins. Cases of adverse reactions have been reported, including some deaths. These concoctions are not regulated in either the US or Europe as drugs, but they can have powerful actions by themselves and equally powerful interactions with prescription drugs.

Another issue with Chinese traditional medicines has been identifying the ingredients of any individual herbal preparation. This issue has stemmed from either contaminants or the use of a substitute compound from similar, but not identical, species of plant. Since more than 5,000 species are used for therapies, and most of them are animal- or plant-derived organics, such identification has been difficult. But high-throughput screening and new whole-exome or whole-genome sequencing analysis has permitted scientists to more precisely determine what’s in the mix.

These techniques also have uncovered compounds derived from endangered animal and plant species, including bear bile powder from the endangered Asiatic black bear, and horn powder from the endangered Saiga antelope. The presence of these compounds is a violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Other compounds that were not declared by the makers were not endangered, but still a matter of concern: water buffalo, cow, deer and sheep DNA was discovered in 78 percent of preparations tested by an Australian team. “Even in the 15 (traditional Chinese medicines) tested here, the occurrence of CITES-listed species, potentially toxic/allergenic plants and non-declared constituents was all too common,” the researchers said.

There’s no question that traditional medicines, including Chinese herbal therapies, have a physiological effect, including an effect on disease. And many treatments, including the anti-malarial that won Professor Tu a Nobel Prize, can best any western-invented treatments. It’s important to note, however, that traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurvedic and other Asian medical traditions are not just interesting chemicals that can be part of western medicine—all these traditions come with their own, equally ancient philosophy and unique views on existence and health. Such treatments as artemisinin and acupuncture were developed under these philosophies, not western ones. For Asian traditional therapies and therapists as well as for western medicine, it’s about a meeting of minds as much as matter.

Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow @AMPorterfield on Twitter.

  • Farmer with a Dell

    This ridiculous mystic foo foo dust quackery is not only fraudulent, it enriches smugglers and is destructive to native populations; from animals like the rhinoceros to plants like ginseng. Yet these shifty practitioners of woo falsely claim credit for founding modern pharmacology even as they slander what they call “Big Pharma”. Incorrigible charlatans have succeeded in establishing themselves in too many of our contemporary medical hospitals where they systematically fleece innocent patients and their insurance carriers, clinging to our bloated health care system like so many fat leeches. Unprincipled hospital administrators covet this travesty as an elixir to institutional profit taking. The most corrupt traditions are the most nearly impossible to pry apart and abolish, it seems.

  • Gilbert Haisman

    ‘Western’ medicine is a misnomer. Science has some presence in all cultures (the prediction that letting go of a rock is typically followed by its descent is as scientific as it gets) and science produces theory whose truth-value, to whatever degree it is judged to be present, is universal. The recent dominance of Western people in science has always been significantly less than total, and may be coming to an end. The term ‘Western science’ is a therefore a cultural construction falsified by factual evidence.

    • Farmer with a Dell

      Yeah, all that’s fine when you’re not really sick and if you are affluent enough to waste time and money fooling with quack nostrums. But you’re fooling no one. Actually get sick for real with a serious disease, especially something life-threatening, and you’ll skip over the chiropractors, homeopaths and herbalists to urgently plead with legitimate board-certified practitioners of “Western” medicine to please, please save your life! When you need cancer therapy or a heart transplant a dose of succussed and titrated tincture of powdered unicorn dick under your tongue just isn’t going to cut the mustard, is it?

      • Alon Marcus

        I can tell i have treated many people with serious disease with chinese medicine and its done every day in Asia. Its true however in acute critical cases one often needs modern medicine. I don’t mind opinions but at least know what you are talking about

        • Farmer with a Dell

          That’s OK. I endorse individual determination.

          If/when we each are afflicted with, say, cancer I will opt for the specialty surgery and Western medical follow up and you are welcome to rely on the titrated tincture of powdered unicorn dick regimen augmented with whatever choreographed reiki groping you feel best guides the malignancy into a meditative state of remission.

          Just don’t tell me about yours and I won’t bore you with mine. Maybe I will even attend your memorial service if it isn’t gonna be too freaky. Deal?

          • It seems you also opt for red herrings.

          • Farmer with a Dell

            Naw, I opt for science and evidence-based medicine for me and mine. Happy to leave the superstitions and earnest chanting to other folks. I feel bad for their kids, though.

          • That’s fair enough, but you mention plenty of things which are only under the VERY broad umbrella of “alternative medicine.” This article is specifically about Chinese medicine, which makes mention of other things not relevant and distracting to the topic at hand a red herring.

            The example cited by the article is very straight forward. Is artemisinin quackery? It’s discovered through Chinese medicine. If you discount that maybe you also have to discount the fact that it was awarded a Nobel prize. Nobody is saying you need to accept all Chinese med or other unrelated alternative stuff wholesale, but cherry picking your “evidence” while ignoring anything that contradicts such broad-sweeping generalization is just as unscientific.

          • Farmer with a Dell

            Elevating artemether to the be-all end-all validation of herbalism and all other quack endeavors is a pretty heavy lift. Even if you include quinine and digoxin. It’s like saying Tang (TM) proves space travel to another galaxy is a reality.

          • Well now you’re just setting up a straw man. Where was this claim made, except outside of this context? I think the article here is simply saying it is worth investigation for other discoveries. Was the discovery of all three completely random in your opinion then?

  • Eyes wide open

    Very creative, albeit ignorant comments from Farmer with a Dell and an ax to grind. The practice of medicine boils down to diagnosis and treatment. Most doctors fail in step one when their diagnosis tells you what you have not why you have it. Without the “why” part of the equation you’ll only eliminate symptoms at best. People who want to address the underlying causes turn to alternatives that, in some cases, offer more information about how to address their condition. Quite often, armed with this additional information, alternative treatment approaches may still fail, but in other cases will succeed. Cause and effect relationships are difficult to determine, but it is still worth trying when symptom relief, as welcome as it may be, will often fail to eliminate the problematic condition. I agree that western medical science is amazing and impressive, however it is a long way from providing all the answers we need to maintain and recover health when facing the consequences of ours and our ancestors behaviors. I’ve seen dramatic results from using approaches used in traditional Chinese medicine. I’ve also seen minimal results in some cases. The same goes for western medicine. So until western medicine offers all the answers we need, I would not discourage anyone from exploring alternatives. Even if alternatives don’t cure their condition, they may gain additional useful insights about the condition they are confronting.

    • We should all only use Dells too, clearly no other computer works.

  • NobleSpirit

    There is no such thing chinese traditional medicine, there is traditional medicine by chinese rip off version rather chinese traditional medicine scam which causes more harm then than benefit. Alot of rare species of animals, plants and fragile marine life plundered to the extinction for the chinese medicine scam