Traditional Chinese Medicine

The Naked Scientists spoke to Dr Tai-Ping Fan, University of Cambridge
19 February 2006

Interview with 

Dr Tai-Ping Fan, University of Cambridge


Kat - You're working on traditional Chinese medicine. How long has Chinese medicine been around?

Tai - Ping - It has been around for about 2000 years.

Kat - So what are you doing? You're taking Chinese remedies and finding out how they work?

Tai - Ping - Precisely. I think as a scientists trained in England I became fascinated by the reports of Chinese medicine achieving great results for eczema in the early 1990s. Working together with Dr Luo Ding-Hui, I learned a great deal and we now apply modern technology, analytical techniques, and the studies of genes and proteins to find out how plant medicine can be produced in the future.

Kat - So you've been doing some work on gingseng. What have you found out about it?

Tai - Ping - It is a very interesting project. We set aside a project for ginseng because it is the most revered plant in Chinese medicine. It has been reported to promote wound healing, increase memory and be used in cancer. We didn't know what was going on. I had a hypothesis that the main ginseng plant might contain two different classes of chemicals. One class stimulates formation of blood vessels and the other inhibits growth of blood vessels.

Kat - So in cancer you have blood vessels growing, which is bad. So you want o find something that stops the blood vessels growing to stop cancer.

Tai - Ping - That's right. It is very interesting that when we compare different types of gingseng, we discovered that in American gingseng there are more chemicals that inhibit angiogenesis.

Kat - Which is blood vessel growth.

Tai - Ping - Yes, and there is more of this angiogenesis inhibitor in American gingseng than there is in Korean gingseng. So the opposite is true in Korean gingseng. This is good for chronic wounds, so you should be very careful with which kind of gingseng you use.

Kat - You don't want to encourage blood vessels to grow in cancer. So if you have cancer, it's the American form you should be taking, and if you've got a wound, the Korean form. But how do you know the difference if you go into a health food shop? How do you know which one to buy?

Tai - Ping - If you go to a good herbalist shop, you should be fine. This brings home the point about the legislation the government is trying to bring in, because then we can regulate herbalist shops and know what they are doing. This will provide the assurance that these herbs are what they say they are.

Kat - It's like the point Monique was making, that if you have more awareness and regulation, you can make sure that people's drugs aren't interfering with herbal remedies. So what else are working on in your lab at the moment?

Tai - Ping - We are also working on two other projects. One is endometriosis.

Kat - What is that?

Tai - Ping - Every month during the menstrual cycle the endometrium, or womb lining, thickens and then leaves the body as a period. Endometriosis is when some of the endometrium ends up in the pelvic cavity. It also thickens and breaks down during menstruation, but has nowhere to exit the body. When the endometrium settles on organs such as the colon or the ovary, it can cause problems like bleeding and pain. We know that angiogenesis is plainly an important part in endometriosis. Three years ago, we managed to show in mouse models that if you block angiogenesis, you can block endometriosis. With collaborators in China, we are now looking at six different plants known for their effects on endometriosis. Some of them are actually quite popular.

Kat - So do these plants that are used often to treat the same illness, do they have chemicals in common?

Tai - Ping - Sometimes you do see similar chemicals present in different plants, so a good herbalist, chemist or biochemist should actually choose a plant that has these chemicals and then hopefully synthesise something that can eventually be given to patients.

Kat - If you get sick, do you go for Chinese or Western medicine?

Tai - Ping - Well that very much depends on the situation. If I have a headache, I'll just take a paracetamol. If there's the threat of more chronic disease, I'll ring up a Chinese herbalist and see what they can do for me. I personally feel that Chinese medicine is multi-targeting. By that I mean we can combine different herbs, one which may be anti-inflammatory and one which may be antibacterial, and so on. I think a lot can be learned from that. I'd also like to point out that the Human Genome Project pointed out that there are around 30 000 genes in a human. At the moment, only 100 of those genes are targets for drugs. What about the other 29 900? I think this should open a door for drug discovery.


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