Chinese Medicine and the Healing Power of Plants

19 February 2006
Presented by Kat Arney, Mandy Morton.


Unlocking Nature's medicine chest are doctor's orders this week as Monique Simmonds reveals the research behind old herbal remedies, Tai-Ping Fan describes how Chinese medicine is being used for illnesses from gout to endometriosis, Jack Cuzick talks about clinical trials for a new drug for breast cancer, and Dr Chris is in St. Louis with details on a potato that fights back... In Kitchen Science, Derek unleashes the explosive power of flour, and Anna Lacey asks Peter Austin why thousands of languages are threatened with extinction.

In this episode

- A Higher State of Ecstasy

The effects of ecstasy are enhanced by loud music, a new study has shown...

A Higher State of Ecstasy

Scientists in Italy have demonstrated what clubbers have known for years: the effects of ecstasy are enhanced by loud music.

But we’re not talking about good effects. The researchers either injected rats with an ecstasy solution, or gave them salt water instead. Then they played loud club music-like noises to the rats and measured their brain activity over the next five days. 

They found that the brains of rats that had been given ecstasy still showed harmful effects up to five days afterwards, but only if the rats had listened to club noises. The brains of the rats on E that had been kept in silence were back to normal after just a day.

Remember, ecstasy is illegal in the UK but if you do take it, make sure you stay at home and keep quiet!

- The Aaas And Genetically Modified Potatoes

The Naked Scientists spoke to Chris Smith interviews Monsanto geneticist Dr Jossi Shapiro

The Aaas And Genetically Modified Potatoes
with Chris Smith interviews Monsanto geneticist Dr Jossi Shapiro

Mandy - Tell us exactly what you're up to.

Chris - I'm at the AAAS, which is the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or at least it would be if anyone was here! It was quite ironic that yesterday we were l9ooking for life elsewhere in the universe with Maggie Turnbull from the Carnegie Institution in Washington, and she's narrowed down five stars that she thinks might be good contenders as places to look for life. But we haven't yet discovered any life here in St. Louis!

Mandy - Perhaps they've all been to the moon.

Chris - I think they've gone somewhere but they haven't come here. The thing is that this is in the middle of America and this sets up a big geographical divide between where the people are and where the conference is. This conference is supposed to be reaching out to the general public and telling people what the scientists in America are up to. This is difficult if no-one can come. Another challenge is that it's minus 16 outside today, so it's pretty bracing. The Mississippi River which flows through here is freezing up. Other than that, I'm having a great time. The science is fantastic!

Kat - So what else have you heard out there then Chris?

Chris - One of the things we've heard about has been GM crops. I got talking to a guy called Jossi Shapiro yesterday from Monsanto, the big GM crop giant. They've actually made a form of potato plant which contains a bacterial toxin called BT toxin. He had a wonderful demonstration where he had two potato plants. One was genetically modified and the other one was normal, and both were infested with something called a Colorado beetle. These beetles will demolish potato crops in no time, and he actually talked me through how this demonstration works.

Jossi - We have two potato plants here: one is a traditional or conventional potato plant, while the other is genetically enhanced potato. They're both infested with small Colorado potato beetle larvae, and the larvae are feeding on the two types of plant. On the traditional potato plants, the larvae survive, and we can start to see significant amounts of damage happening where the insects are feeding. On the genetically enhanced potato plant, which is enhanced with a bacillus thuringiensis protein…

Chris - In other words, a toxin which is going to kill the beetle.

Jossi - That's right. It's a toxin that's very specific for the order Coleoptera, which are beetles. And so the plant that produces that protein within the cells will kill the insects that feed on it. The good thing about this particular protein is that it has a narrow range of activity, so other insects and all other organisms aside from beetles will not be affected.

Chris - And not toxic to humans?

Jossi - Not at all toxic to humans. It's called BT for Bacillus thuringiensis, which is the bacterium that in nature produces this class of toxin. The BT toxins have been used for about 60 years or more as foliar applied insecticides and have a history of safe usage.

Chris - And how did you actually get the plants to make the toxin? How do you do that?

Jossi - Well it's through molecular biology techniques. We can insert genes and the genetic elements that control the expression of genes into the DNA of the plant cells. The plant will then itself start to produce the plant protein that the gene encodes.

Chris - Can you just talk us through the nuts and bolts of how you actually make a GM crop?

Jossi - There are a couple of ways that are commonly used for inserting this particular kind of constructs into plant cells. One is called agrobacterium transformation, and that involves the use of a bacterium that will insert its own DNA naturally into plant cells of the plant that it infects. Those bacteria have been disarmed so that they are not inserting their own DNA but rather inserting the DNA of interest. The other way is to do it through what's known as the biolistic method. This is a means of bombarding DNA with small pellets that are coded with the genes of interest and thereby inserting the DNA sequence of the construct into the DNA of the plant.

Chris - What about the spread of the gene to other plant in nature? Is that a risk?

Jossi - Well with something like potato it's not a risk because potato is typically not grown to flower. Potato is typically propagated asexually or by pieces of potato. The flow of pollen is not a risk. With other crops there may be some concerns, and so that is something that needs to be studied and remedied in one way or another.

Chris - In the context of the potato pest, how much could this save somebody in the Third World growing potatoes if they were succumbing to pests like this?

Jossi - These Colorado potato beetles are particularly voracious feeders, and as you can see, the damage that has been done to this plant has happened in a relatively short span of time just this afternoon. If we were to come back here tomorrow, these insects will have continued to feed. By the time this conference is over, this plant will no longer have any leaves or have any chance of making a potato. In many cases, such as with subsistence farmers who would not maybe have the means to apply pesticides, it may make the difference between having a potato crop and not having a potato crop at all.

- Unlocking The Science Behind Grandma's Remedies

The Naked Scientists spoke to Professor Monique Simmonds, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Unlocking The Science Behind Grandma's Remedies
with Professor Monique Simmonds, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Kat - So you're actually looking at plants that really do heal and try to suss out why. Can you tell us a bit more about what you do?

Monique - I'm working at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and we've got a team of people who are at the moment concentrating on British plants. We've been neglecting our own back garden because we've been so busy looking at everyone else's in the past few years. We're going back and looking some of those traditional uses where we can't really explain how they work, and seeing whether there's nay substance behind it. So the group of scientists at Kew are helping to isolate the different compounds in these plants and then study into seeing if they can explain how they work. So we're using different techniques to fractionate the compounds. You start off with a tea or infusion from the plant. One of the keys to our work is really concentrating on how the plants were traditionally used and the year in which they were collected. Often we've made mistakes when somebody has come to us and said that this plant was used for x, y and z and we've gone out into the gardens at Kew, collected it and paid no attention to when it was traditionally used.

Kat - So can you give us an example of that?

Monique - Some of the work we've done of figworts, which is used in the early part of the year, shows that it doesn't contain the same compounds later on. So it's really important to get it in the spring time. There is a similar kind of thing with goose grass, which is used for wound healing.

Kat - So goose grass is the stuff with all the burrs that gets stuck to dogs.

Monique - That's right. Now that has been traditionally used to treat leg ulcers. Now over the last few years that we've been studying it, we've identified some compounds that have antibacterial activity, which protects the wound as it's healing. It also has a little bit of antioxidant and anti inflammatory property. It also stimulates fibroblasts. These are the cells that need to multiply to help heal a wound.

Kat - So that suggests that there's lots of good stuff in there. So do you think that if you just purify one chemical out of it and make it into a drug, you will risk losing all the other good stuff that's in there?

Monique - Yes. I think from our work, when we tested the crude infusion and then isolated it, we often found that the activity was lost.

Kat - how are you finding your ideas?

Monique - Well it comes from a range of different sources. It's partly remedies passed down by older people, who remember them being used before 1945 when the health service came in. That's a real source of information. So our work is partly to find out about traditional uses, but also to conserve that use. We also go back to some of the older herb books, so it's a combination of information. We don't want to investigate things that have already been well studied. We're looking for new leads.

Kat - So something like peppermint, which has been well studied, you wouldn't necessarily be interested in?

Monique - Not unless it's for a new use. So far, there have been lots of plants that come up again and again. These include dock, dandelion and elder. Elder is used frequently, but we don't fully know how it's used. Another example is crab apple. Now crab apple was used to treat forms of cancer, such as stomach and colon cancer. Why? We don't really know!

Kat - Do you think that they have antibacterial properties because a lot of stomach cancer is caused by a bacteria that lives in the stomach under acidic conditions.

Monique - Yes, this could be what's happening. Having fundamental knowledge about some of the roles of the compounds and the ecology of a plant is important. Plants produce these compounds not as medicines for us but to protect themselves from being attacked by fungi and viruses and also things like insects. We can make some advances using this information. So if it's a natural antibacterial, then that's where we'll often start.

Kat - When I used to live at home, I'd sometimes see my dog going out in the garden, eating stuff and then being copiously sick. Is it true that animals will seek out plants that can help make them better?

Monique - Yes, there's quite a lot of evidence that they do, especially if they've got infestations of fleas. They will rub themselves in things like lavender to get rid of some of the insects. If you look at the behaviour of apes, they will take some of the fruits to purge themselves of things like nematodes and intestine infections. So there's quite a lot of evidence that animals are selecting.

Sarah - Are you looking at animals to try and get clues about what to look at next?

Monique - We do take it into account but there's so much we could do here that we have to put some blinkers on, otherwise we'd just be overwhelmed. We'd love to tinker with everything but we can't because otherwise we'd never deliver anything. There's such a rich source of information out there that it justifies so much further research.

Mandy - Once this information is gathered, are you going to pass this information on so that it can be reproduced chemically?

Monique - The main emphasis of our project is to understand what's going on . At some time we will isolate some of the really active ingredients and that's where the compounds from the plants will most likely act as models and then will be synthesised. There's a stage where we might be able to help identify the proportions of compounds that should be there. That's where you could have something produced as a medicinal drug. One thing you've got to be really careful of is that if a plant works and you take it, you have to be so careful that you're not mixing it with some of the traditional medicines. If you have an active plant in combination with another kind of drug, you get adverse responses. When you get many of those, unfortunately the authorities will often act to ban the plant.

Kat - St. John's Wort is a problem isn't it?

Monique - yes, and you get things interfering with things like warfarin, which a lot of people are taking to decrease blood flow. When you get these interactions, it's also affecting what's happening in your liver.

Sarah - This is actually a problem with the pill as well. People often take St. John's Wort if they're feeling a bit depressed. It then interferes with their contraceptive pill and you get unwanted pregnancies.

Kat - Can you just tell us briefly about your remembered remedies project? How can listeners get involved with that?

Monique - It would be great if they could look back in their records or talk to some of the older members of the family and get in contact with us at Kew. We want information on what plants were being used for themselves but also for their animals. This is a collaborative project with herbalists and ethnobotanists, which are helping to collect remedies throughout Britain. Often people think that everyone knows about certain remedies, but usually they don't. One of the keys is whether they used plants in combination with other plants or by themselves. Please provide information about where the plants were used because the soil has an effect on the chemistry of the plant. A plant picked from Norfolk or Cambridge might have a very different composition of chemicals than something from Scotland or Cornwall.

Mandy - I suppose one of the problems with herbal medicines is that they're spread by word of mouth. Doesn't this make in dangerous?

Monique - Yes, although I would hate to say that it was dangerous because it's so easy to put this into a negative box. Remember, it was our medicine until the 1940s, and we relied on plants. Many people in the world still rely completely on plants. It's in this combination of techniques where things go wrong. The other thing is that when we grow the plants now, we are selecting plants that have higher concentrations of some of the active ingredients. We need to really know what we're dealing with and know more about the concentrations of the active ingredients in some of these herbal remedies being sold. But a professional herbalist will take a lot of this into account.

Kat - So Sarah, you're a GP. Do you find that more and more people are saying that they've tried complementary or herbal medicines?

Sarah - You do have to push people because it is something they don't admit to unless you ask them whether they're buying anything over the counter. Then they'll say that they're taking certain multivitamins or St. John's Wort. This is something we obviously take into account. It's also something that more and more people are asking me about. Often they've tried what conventional medicine can offer and they're keen to try something else.

Kat - Are you, Tai-Ping and Monique, keen to see Western doctors go on courses in herbal medicine?

Tai - Ping - We very much welcome that opportunity. In this country there's only one university that's offering such a course. At Cambridge we have students who are interested in studying complementary medicine, but they would have to wait until they've qualified before they have a chance to venture in that direction.

Monique - Of course, it used to be traditional that they'd be taught both. It's only in the last ten years that the teaching of the more traditional herbal medicine has decreased. Talking with colleagues, I've found that there's an increased interest in having modules on herbal medicine.

Sarah - Just the other day in our practice, we had a homeopathist come to talk to us about what they can offer.

Kat - Water!

Sarah - When I worked down in London we had a Chinese and herbal medicine doctor working with us who practised both, and it was very useful.

Kat - Aloe vera has been used for many years. What's in that?

Monique - You really can trace the usage of aloe vera to many years ago. It's got some compounds in called polysaccharides, which form a bit of a skin on the surface. It helps the wound-healing process occur naturally. It's also thought to stimulate the immune system if it's sometimes ingested, but you really have to be careful that you use the inside of the leaf of an aloe plant. So if you've actually got one, make sure you use the gel inside the leaf, not the compounds for the outside of the leaf, as this can cause a stinging sensation and some blisters. But aloe vera is used throughout the world for treating wounds.

Kat - And many people use poultices or other things you strap onto wounds too.

Monique - This is the fascination with what we do in parts of Europe and what happens in China. In Europe we often put a poultice on. Sometimes it's the leaves that are applied to the skin, or it's a extract that's put around the bandage. If you go to Asia, it's often an infusion and taken internally as a tea or something like that. So these are two very different approaches which can end up with the same result

Sarah - It would be interesting to know which is more effective.

Monique - Yes, because if you're taking it internally, the enzymes in your gut are going to alter the chemicals and they then have to be absorbed from your gut and get into the blood stream. There's so much we don't fully understand. I think that's why it's so exciting being in this type of work now because there are advances in molecular biology and analytical equipment which can be used to go back and study these plants.

Kat - Do you take any herbal remedies yourself?

Monique - No I don't actually. Would I? Yes and I must admit that I would be very interested in taking some Chinese medicine, especially if I knew they were good quality material.

Mandy - I think something we have learnt form this evening's programme is that if you've got a good herbalist, then hang onto them!

- Traditional Chinese Medicine

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

Traditional Chinese Medicine
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.

- Clinical Trials For a Breast Cancer Drug

The Naked Scientists spoke to Professor Jack Cuzick, Cancer Research UK

Clinical Trials For a Breast Cancer Drug
with Professor Jack Cuzick, Cancer Research UK

Kat - We've been talking about drugs and how you discover new drugs, but you're running clinical trials to test whether a drug can prevent cancer. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

Jack - This was an idea of a new use for a relatively old drug. The aromatase inhibitors are becoming established as the treatment of choice for breast cancer now, particularly in post-menapausal women. We noticed from looking at those trials that not only did they stop the old tumours from coming back but they were also blocking up to 75% of new tumours.

Kat - What are aromatase inhibitors?

Jack - Basically they're drugs that prevent the creation of oestrogen in post-menopausal women. Once the ovaries stop making oestrogen, oestrogen is made in the peripheral tissues by converting androgens with an enzyme called aromatase. Aromatase inhibitors block that pathway.

Kat - And is oestrogen bad for breast cancer?

Jack - Oestrogen stimulates the breast and they certainly stimulate breast cancers, so by getting rid of oestrogen, we really stop most of the stimulus to the breast. It has a very big effect on reducing recurrence and we think also on preventing new cancers.

Kat - So this new trial you're running is called IBIS2. How many people are you hoping to recruit for the trial? What sort of women are you looking for?

Jack - IBIS2 has two components to it. The most relevant is the component for women with high risk of breast cancer. We're looking for 6000 women who are at post-menopausal and at increased risk of breast cancer. The increased risk is mostly related to having a family history, such as if your mother and a sister has had breast cancer.

Kat - So will these women be given aromatase inhibitors?

Jack - The women all get very careful follow up and it's a randomised trial. The only way we can make progress and see if this works is if all women who get a tablet in which half is aromatase inhibitor and half is a dummy compound.

Kat - And you follow the women for how long?

Jack - Treatment is for five years, and then we follow them up for at least another five years. So it'll be at least a ten year trial before we get a complete answer.

Kat - If there are women listening to the show now who are post-menopausal, have a family history of breast cancer or have had a benign tumour removed, what can they do to get involved with the trials?

Jack - The easiest way to contact us to go to our website, which is All the information to join the trials is there. You can also call on 020 7 014 0251.

- The Survival of Languages

The Naked Scientists spoke to Professor Peter Austin, School of Oriental and African Studies, London

The Survival of Languages
with Professor Peter Austin, School of Oriental and African Studies, London

Peter - Human beings have been around and speaking languages for a hundred thousand years or so. Even if you have two communities who speak the same language all languages are constantly changing. New words are coming in while old sayings are going out, and over a period of time, those languages will drift apart until you get to a point when they can't understand each other. Then you have two separate languages.

Anna - This to me sounds very much like the evolution of species, say on an island. Is the loss of some of the minor languages not survival of the fittest?

Peter - Ok, there's no genetic relationship between who we are and the language that we speak. Any child can learn to speak any language. There's no requirement that I have to be a kangaroo and not be an elephant. So there isn't a parallel to the species argument from biology because language is a cultural aspect. We can have multiple languages coexisting in the same domain or space. It's not that languages are competing with one another, it's rather that politics, economics and social power of one group is forcing other smaller groups to abandon their ways of speaking.

Anna - But are there not some benefits to having one language or fewer languages?

Peter - In the modern world, particularly in the last 50 or 60 years, there's been this belief that mono-lingualism is the way of the future. Well that's simply false, and there are a number of reasons why. One is that even if people speak the same language, it doesn't mean they understand each other and it doesn't mean they're able to communicate. It doesn't stop conflict and misunderstanding. Look at Northern Ireland and the conflict and troubles we had there. The second thing is that you and I speak English, but I still have tremendous trouble understanding lots of people here in the UK. My bank has a call centre which is located in Glasgow and I have a terrible time understanding these guys! We're supposed to speak English, but in fact it's incomprehensible what these people are producing from my perspective. So there are two issues: one is yes, languages of wider communication are valuable but it doesn't follow that you have to give up your own language in order to learn that bigger language of wider communication.

Anna - So it really is true that diversity id the spice of life as far as languages are concerned.

Peter - Yes and it has huge value too. It has huge economic value. It has huge political value and it has cultural value for people to be able to maintain their own cultures and languages while participating in the wider world. Mono-lingualism is a curse of the modern world and that's where the danger really lies. People can believe that by giving up languages they will be advantaged. They won't be.

- What do people do to plants to make them genetically modified?

What do people do to plants to make them genetically modified?

What do people do to plants to make them genetically modified?

As Jossi was just outlining there, one of the ways to do this is to resort to biotechnology. In other words, you can use techniques which are standard laboratory techniques to do this. One of the things you can do is use a bacterium. It's called agrobacterium tumefaciens and is a natural soil bacterium that has naturally evolved a way to genetically modify plants. The way it does that is it has an element called a transposon. These transposons are little pieces of DNA that can insert themselves into the genetic material of a plant. So what you do is to insert into that transposon the genes that you want to transfer into a plant. You then disarm the bacterium so that it's unable to do what it normally does, and you use that technique to move the gene you want into the plant's DNA. The reason a bacterium usually does this is because it wants to encourage an area of growth, or a gall, in the root or stem of the plant, which is an ideal home for that bacterium. So you're using what nature has already provided and subverting it into producing another kind of plant for you with some additional techniques and characteristics. This can mean a bigger crop, but you can also add genes that give the plant pesticide resistance or resistance to certain types of insect pest.

- How does taking St. John's Wort affect blood chemistry?

How does taking herbal remedies such as St. John's Wort affect giving blood? Should you tell the blood donor centre?

How does taking St. John's Wort affect blood chemistry?

I think you should tell them. It's also important that you tell your doctor that you're taking something herbal, because so frequently that doesn't happen. The outcome is that the herbalist doesn't know what drugs you're taking and the doctor doesn't know what the herbalist is giving you.

- What drugs do the military use to keep soldiers awake?

You were talking earlier about a drug that keeps people awake. The military have been issuing amphetamines for years to keep soldiers awa...

What drugs do the military use to keep soldiers awake?

Modafinil doesn't seem to have the horrible side effects that amphetamines have. Amphetamines can sometimes leave you feeling very depressed and not very well. Apart from the side effect of headaches, Modafinil is pretty good. They don't fully understand how it works, but they think that it stops nerve cells from reabsorbing a neurotransmitter in the brain called dopamine. Dopamine is an excitatory neurotransmitter and so when it's left between the synapses, it keeps you awake. So the main benefit is the lack of side effects.


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