Earlier today I read an article entitled "How many traditional Chinese medicine components have been recognized by modern western medicine?..." in ChemMedChem. Actually, the title is what attracted me to this article. I've always been interested in alternative and/or natural medicine (maybe that comes with being a vegetarian?*), and really try to avoid taking unnecessary medicines (other than the occasional necessities like ibuprofen and when I was really sick this summer, I ended up taking hydrocodone and paracetamol--a.k.a. vicodin--followed by trimethobenzamide, both of which I resisted initially). In my kitchen I also have a tea for just about any ailment--lemon balm (melissenblaetter in German) tea will cure just about anything. While I've never actually tried any traditional Chinese medicines, a comparison of the components found in these traditionally used herbs and minerals seemed like it might be an interesting read.
Traditional Chinese medicine has been around for more than 4000 years and currently there are over 10,000 chemical components that have been extracted from almost 5,000 traditionally used Chinese herbs/minteals/animals found in the database of traditional Chinese medicines. Compared to Western medicine, this is pretty amazing. Synthetic drugs have only been around for about 100 years, and in one comprehensive medicinal chemistry database you can find about 8000 different molecules that have been approved for use as approved drugs. About 50% of these approved drugs are actually derived from natural products, so a logical conclusion is that there might be some striking similarities between the chemical components of traditional Chinese medicines and modern Western drugs.
According to the Zhang group, there are 327 compounds found in both the traditional Chinese and Western drug databases, and approximately 900 chemicals that are structurally similar (>85% similarity) between the two. Not surprisingly, more than a hundred of the traditionally used Chinese remedies display the same pharmacological effects as their corresponding Western drug. The pharmacological effects of many of the natural herbs were recorded in ancient Chinese texts dating back to the Eastern Han dynasty (~25 AD to 220 AD). For instance, among the 12 chemical components of the herb Coptidis rhizoma (used to treat gastric conditions in traditional Chinese remedies) are berberine, columbamine, coptisine, jatrorrhizine and palmatine. Today calystigine/palmatine is known as an antibiotic, and a structurally similar compound called berberine is believed to be an inhibitor of Helicobacter pylori.
The article also stresses the potential that traditional Chinese medicines could have in drug discovery efforts, in particular in finding multicomponent therapeutics that combine two or more active ingredients into one single dose to hit several targets at once. The herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine can easily have over 50 chemical components. Although each single component might not be active, in combination they might be able to potentiate the effects of other chemical components, or they might work in combination to produce unexpected results. Additionally, traditional Chinese medicines are often prescribed in combinations. Would it be possible to combine the well established formulae of traditional Chinese medicines with Western medicine to produce combinations of drugs with lower risks of adverse drug-drug interactions? Now that we know traditional Chinese medicine has somewhat of a scientific basis, hopefully more work will be completed in this area. Acupuncture has already gained acceptance in many Western societies, so maybe this is the wave of the future.
*My cat on the other hand, certainly isn't a vegetarian. In addition to lounging in the sun on his new window seat, he enjoys his dinner of duck and peas very much.