Merging Chinese and western medicine
For thousands of years, the Chinese have been using an extraordinary range of traditional medicines to treat everything from backache to cancer.
Numerous clinical studies in China indicate that these various herbal remedies work. But until now, no-one has gone to the trouble of finding out how.
That groundbreaking task has fallen to Professor David Adelson and his team at the University of Adelaide in a unique partnership with the Shanxi College of Traditional Chinese Medicine and the Zhendong Pharmaceutical Company.
For the first time Chinese and western scientists are combining their different areas of expertise to study how individual herbal compounds might be affecting the body at the molecular level and if there is any placebo effect.
The ultimate aim is a merging of western and traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and new ways of fighting disease.
Professor Adelson is Director of the Zhendong Australia—China Centre for Molecular Traditional Chinese Medicine which has received millions of dollars in funding to pursue different lines of research.
"In China, they don't have the same polarised viewpoints that we have in the west," says Professor Adelson. "They may not know how traditional medicine works, but if they have evidence it does work they'll use it.
"It's partly a cultural thing and partly the fact that people have been using these remedies all their lives from their relatives or physicians."
Significantly, western-trained doctors in China see no conflict in using both types of medicine and seem quite happy to work alongside their TCM counterparts.
"In the west we can't just use something if we don't know what it's doing," says Professor Adelson. "Our regulatory mechanisms state that we have to be able to state if and how it works and what are the side effects.
"This joint venture will provide us with a robust and scientific way of testing precisely that."
Originally from the United States, Professor Adelson has lived in Australia with his family for about 20 years and has been Head of the School of Molecular and Biomedical Science at the University of Adelaide since 2007.
His initial research priorities at the new Zhendong centre involve studies of Chinese treatments for cancer and Type 2 diabetes. Until now no-one has investigated either treatments from a systems biology approach.
One area of research involves Compound Kushen Injection, a complex mixture of plant compounds produced by the Zhendong Pharmaceutical Company for treating bowel and liver cancer.
Extensive literature published in China indicates the compound has a palliative effect for patients.
"It certainly seems to be doing something, but the question is whether it's causing the tumour to shrink and the pain to decrease, is it reducing inflammation and causing pain to decrease, or is it doing something completely different and causing the pain to decrease," says Professor Adelson.
Preliminary data indicate elements in the mixture can influence key cancer pathways but because there are multiple compounds it's difficult to know if they are doing different things or acting together.
The other area of research involves a plant commonly used in TCM for treating various ailments including Type 2 diabetes, a huge problem in both the west and China.
Evidence suggests that components extracted from the plant—which cannot be identified for commercial reasons—can affect pathways involved in impaired glucose coma.
"This is the first stage of Type 2 diabetes where you essentially cannot regulate glucose levels properly because the insulin response is affected," says Professor Adelson.
"We're very interested in trying to identify the particular pathways that this extract might be acting on and formulating a drug that can be used therapeutically."
In addition to working together on both research areas, the partnership also extends to training.
Next year, Associate Professor Du Hong from the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine is expected to receive a visiting science scholarship for 12 months, and Dr Wang Wei, a scientist from the Zhendong Pharmaceutical Company, will also undertake work in Adelaide.
"The learning is two-way and as we progress it will become more bi-directional and we expect our researchers will work in China," says Professor Adelson.
"At the same time we are in the process of organising four fully funded PhD students from China and Australia to begin research at the centre. That's in addition to visitors and other students coming to us from normal routes.
"It's an exciting venture and offers tremendous opportunities for creative research and new discoveries."
story by Ian Williams
Professor David Adelson
Photo by Chris Tonkin