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Chinese Medicine:

The Ultimate Solution to Cancer?


People around the world even Coca-Cola are taking a new look at traditional Chinese medicine. Can its multi-target "cocktail therapy" approach become the ultimate answer to cancer?



The Ultimate Solution to Cancer?

By Ming-ling Hsieh
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 376 )

Perhaps you are aware that Coca-Cola has received a huge sales boost from the introduction of its calorie-free Coca-Cola Zero. And maybe you know that the carbonated beverage giant has shown interest of late in developing the tea beverage market. But surely it had never occurred to you that the US-based beverage giant has recently begun working on traditional Chinese medicine.

In 2006 Coke joined the Consortium for Globalization of Chinese Medicine, paying annual dues of US$10,000 for its membership. Other members of the group, currently numbering 61, include Yale, Oxford and Cambridge universities, along with Taiwan’s Academia Sinica and National Health Research Institutes. The group draws its membership from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan as well as the USA and Europe. Considering its progress, it is hard to believe the consortium has only been established for two and one-half years.

Tasked to promote traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to the entire world and consider how to unite the various forces working in Chinese medicine, the group shares its research on quality control, evaluation of material sources, establishing a Chinese medicine database, and clinical testing.

And their efforts are attracting notice. The founding member, who brought these top research organizations and corporate groups together, is a Western-trained pharmacology expert – Yung-Chi Cheng, a 62 year-old graduate of Tunghai University and professor of pharmacology at Yale University.

In early April, Cheng concluded a three-week tour of meetings and discussions in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Kunming, China. In late August he will fly back to Asia for the Consortium on the Globalization of Chinese Medicine’s convention in Beijing.

“I visit Taiwan at least four or five times a year. The same goes for Hong Kong and China,” he shouts over a stiff wind at the airport. An Academia Sinica fellow, he adds, “I’ve been pushing pretty hard over the past few years.”

Subverting Mainstream Medical Thinking

In recent years people around the world have begun taking new stock of traditional Chinese medicine. Many people believe that the wisdom of the ancestors could be the ultimate answer to the illnesses that have never found answers, like cancer.

One reason is that many people working on the foundation of a century of research in Western medicine have run into bottlenecks.

“It’s harder and harder for Western medicine to find newer and better ways, and development costs keep escalating,” relates Tian-Shung Wu, director of the National Research Institute of Chinese Medicine and co-convener of the consortium. Even though Western medicine is still in development, a number of people are exploring other approaches.

Subversive thinking has emerged in the research of cancer, a vexing issue of our time.

Single-target medicines that only offer one effect have come under constant challenge. Just getting cancer to stop metastasizing, or chemotherapy or radiology that causes it to wither directly is no longer enough. Moreover, since everyone is different, individual results vary, and frightening side effects are always a possibility.

“Over the past year mainstream medicine has noticed changes in multi-target therapy,” relates Cheng. It’s looking for medicines that work on different mechanisms, like Academia Sinica fellow David Ho’s “cocktail therapy” for AIDS.

The Rise of Integrated Therapy

Chinese medicine is just such a readily available multi-target medicine. Two star Chinese medicines have emerged in the treatment of cancer, Paclitaxel for breast cancer and CPT-11 (Irinotecan) for colon cancer.

However, as Tian-Shung Wu notes, both treatments follow the path Western medicine has set out, extracting simplified compounds into single ingredients through essentially Western medical methods.

Other natural herbs have been stymied by difficulties in isolating complex ingredients, or the inability to achieve synergetic effects among those constituent elements. Consequently, TCM cannot put new medicines to market under the existing order.

Yung-Chi Cheng’s approach subverts the established parameters of Western medicine. Pausing, he asserts that Chinese medicine’s advantage lies in its complex multi-targeting concept.

This is particularly true given modern medicine’s increasing focus on a holistic view, as opposed to looking at a cell or organ in isolation. In this respect Chinese medicine’s concepts of systems and total body regulation seem comparatively advanced.

“We cannot just keep following the thinking of Western medicine. If we do, we might as well just stick to researching Western medicine,” states Cheng calmly yet firmly, revealing his confidence and tenacity.

Opening the Black Box of Chinese Medicine

Liu Shu-huei, director of Phytoceutica’s preliminary clinical laboratory, who conducted post-doctorate research with Cheng 14 years ago, relates that the most striking aspect of his personality is that he is always asking “why not?” and breaking through convention.

“He feels that if you haven’t tried something yourself, how can you trust what other people say?” relates Liu, indicating how Cheng’s tenacity comes on a bit strong.

Invested with a scientist’s ability to go where the research leads him, he does not allow his creativity to be restricted. People from all different fields often frequent his laboratory, providing him with constant stimulation and inspiration.

Cheng always takes a positive approach: during experiments, he assumes that each ingredient has an effect, until he can prove it does not; or he hypothesizes that each change is related, until he can demonstrate no correlation.

A positive thinker with a grounded personality plus half a lifetime in researching Western medicine, nine years ago he began trying to transform TCM from experiential to empirical medicine.

With financial support from Yale, he established Phytoceutica, which counts former China Development Financial Holding president Benny Hu and Taipei 101 chairperson Diana Chen among its investors.

Finding an Angle

Conventional Western cancer medicines often have serious side effects, while Chinese medicine is celebrated for eliminating such side effects. This observation led Cheng to proceed from this angle.

Poring over countless ancient medical texts in Yale’s collection, Liu Shu-huei decided to use an ancient Chinese medicine preparation for stomach upset first introduced 1700 years ago.

Finding a preparation is not difficult; the problem is demonstrating what makes it work and that every dose is effective.

They enlisted Taiwan’s Sun Ten to produce three batches of the ancient preparation according to CGMP standards of Western medicine. Using a spectrometer, they then analyzed the sequencing of ingredients and their relative concentration to produce a mathematical formula, upon which they developed software to ensure quality and consistent results.

This analytical method received US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. The new medicine, dubbed PHY906, has undergone second phase testing in the United States to ascertain its effectiveness in alleviating side effects in colon, pancreatic, and liver cancer patients. For the next step they will look into whether the preparation boosts the efficacy of Western tumor medicine.

“My purpose isn’t to prove whether it’s useful in Taiwan; I want to do it in the US, to convince the mainstream Western medical establishment,” he proclaims.

TCM is no longer a black box of mystery – it can be opened up and analyzed. And new compound Chinese medicines are no longer pipedreams.

Unsatisfied with going it alone, Cheng has kept busy lecturing over the past few years in hopes of broadly conveying a way of thinking: Chinese medicine will carry major significance in the medicine of the future.

TCM: Medicine of the Future

Modern people are interested in talking more about prevention and less about treatment, in line with the old adage that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” And with the growing acceptance of personalized medicine, the TCM approach of determining the course of treatment based on such aspects as the individual’s constitution (i.e. hot or cold) and the order of meridians has long offered empirical individualized treatment.

Importantly, the whole world is discussing “holistic medicine” at this time, focusing on how to go beyond just looking at one illness, organ, or cell in isolation, but to examine the inter-relationships between bodily functions, cells, and tissues, and even those between the individual and the environment – all of which are strengths of traditional Chinese medicine. “Clearing the liver and brightening the eyes,” a concept frequently cited in Chinese medicine, would be one such example of this multifaceted approach.

“I’m talking completely about modern medicine,” Cheng asserts. “Why not find a foothold in worldwide trends,” he poses earnestly.

Throughout the interview Cheng repeatedly stresses that to develop Chinese medicine it is necessary to think in new ways instead of approaching it in the same old manner. Even more importantly, he says, one must learn “respect.”

“Don’t be a naysayer,” he says. “It’s fine to question, but don’t go around discounting possibilities. Ask in an open manner, ‘Is this possible?’”

Many people have indeed opened their minds, taking a practical approach to the possibilities for bringing Chinese medicine into the mainstream.

For instance, Wu Tian-shung, now reaching retirement age, has been busy of late looking for how the concept of “boosting qi” translates into modern medicine, or how it can be verified by modern medicine. He found that the Western medicine equivalent is boosting nutrition and immunity.

Many consortium members have also learned that it is no longer possible to fight alone to establish a place in the medicine of the future. For instance, Hong Kong has pulled out all the stops under government direction, pouring manpower and resources into two subjects, directly selecting potentially effective preparations for clinical study. Once efficacy is demonstrated, they go back to perform pre-clinical animal testing in the quest for maximum efficiency.

“They’re really progressing fast in other places,” laments consortium consultant Kung-Yee Liang, professor of biostatistics at Johns Hopkins University. “Taiwan needs to step up in a hurry or it will get marginalized,” he notes.

Future medicine is taking shape, and Chinese medicine holds the keys.

“Ten years,” Cheng asserts. “If everyone works hard, within a decade (Chinese medicine) will definitely bear fruit.”

Translated from the Chinese by David Toman

Chinese Version: 中醫,抗癌的最終解答?