Herbal Healing #2/4 ( By TIMEasia.com )

Even when a herbal prescription has centuries of use behind it, and when its production and sale are closely supervised by government agencies, things can go horribly wrong. Several dozen Japanese died in the late 1990s after taking a popular liver tonic called shosaikoto, which the national health insurance program had certified.

In the past few years, a quiet but historic campaign has been under way to subject traditional Asian treatments to rigorous scientific scrutiny. Governments in China, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong are pouring money into hard research on long-accepted cures. In his 1998 annual policy address, Hong Kong Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa vowed to make the city the world leader in research on traditional remedies, a drive that bore fruit with the opening in 2001 of the Institute of Chinese Medicine. Not to be outdone, Taiwan unveiled a $100 million plan that year, aimed at transforming itself into a "traditional Chinese medicine technology island" by 2006. Research into traditional cures is also blossoming at universities and other institutions outside Asia. The U.S. government's National Institutes of Health will spend $220 million on research and training in alternative medicines this year, a chunk of which will go toward the study of Asian remedies.

The forces driving the burst of interest in Chinese medicine vary from national pride to pure intellectual curiosity. And, of course, money. Herbal and other alternative medicaments clocked up a stunning $40 billion in sales in the U.S. alone last year.

Whatever the reasons, there is mounting evidence that these efforts to unlock the secrets of Asian remedies could produce tangible benefits for sufferers of diseases that have confounded both Western and Eastern schools of medicine―everyone from menopausal women to cancer patients. A number of new drugs spawned by this recent research boom are currently undergoing trials across Asia. The ailments they aim to treat range from the awful side effects of chemotherapy to the crippling pain of arthritis. As with all drug trials, the odds are heavily stacked against success. But if just one of these drugs makes it to the pharmacy shelves alongside artemisinin, the world's medicine chest, compartmentalized for centuries, will have grown immeasurably richer. And it will be yet another sign that what once seemed like two fundamentally opposed approaches to healing have finally begun to work in tandem.

It ought to be easy: take drug combinations that have been used for thousands of years and apply strict scientific tests to them to find out what makes them work. Then distill the active compound and make a pill. But life isn't that simple. The very fact that traditional remedies have been used successfully for centuries―precisely what should make them invaluable signposts to researchers―means that drugs developed from those formulas can't be patented. That, in turn, means that no international drug behemoth is driving this research. "Large pharmaceutical companies will only be interested if you can prove the medicine is a new treatment or you can derive new compounds from the traditional form," says Professor Ricky Man, who heads the department of pharmacology at the University of Hong Kong. Another daunting challenge, drugmakers say, lies in getting approval from the notoriously strict U.S. regulatory agency, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). "The FDA requires that we prove how a certain medicine affects the body," explains a China-based executive with Swiss drug giant Roche. "That's easy with Western medicine but traditional Chinese medicine is like a recipe: you can't prove to the FDA what each ingredient does." Despite such obstacles, a few pharmaceutical titans, including Roche and Merck, do maintain small research projects in China. "We're very interested in traditional Chinese medicine, and we're acting on it," says an executive at Merck. "We're testing some plant ingredients to see how they affect the body."

There are theoretical hurdles too. Western science can't figure out what makes some of the most effective traditional methods work. Take acupuncture. While there is no longer any serious doubt in Western scientific circles that it works in alleviating pain and even lowering blood pressure, there is no convincing explanation of how it does so. As advocates of traditional Asian medicine see it, the West's narrow scientific approach misses the point of such ancient practices, which attempt to treat the body as a complex whole instead of trying to heal a specific illness. This quest for precision leads scientists to disassemble complex formulas in the hope of isolating a single compound that could cure one specific disease. That's anathema to Asian healers. "If you want to be true to traditional medicine, it is mixtures rather than one chemical that work," says Richard Eu, CEO of Singapore's 122-year-old traditional medicine maker Eu Yan Sang.

Western medicine approaches diseases in a "direct and unilateral way," says Ryoo Byung Hwan, vice president of life-science business planning for SK Chemicals, a pioneer company in herbal remedy research. Even when it works, says Ryoo, it fails to take into account the human body's complexity. By contrast, traditional cures are effective in combating chronic diseases caused by a variety of factors. "Traditional medicine doesn't analyze or attack the disease directly but it tries to return the body to balance, to its normal state."

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