Researchers at the University of Sydney in Australia are giving TCM perhaps its most modern makeover yet by using computer science to escort it into the digital era.Using IT-based bioinformatics—the application of computer science to molecular biology—researchers at the University of Sydney have been applying algorithms to herb combinations used to treat certain ailments. The goal is to cull a cache of evidence-based data on an area of medicine to ultimately build a treatment reference database—a formidable challenge. Although TCM has been gaining popularity in Australia, it’s been difficult to evaluate by Western standards due to the customized nature of its prescriptions.
Data from a Chinese hospital that uses traditional medicine is being supplied to the researchers by the China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences, a Beijing-based research organization of the Chinese government. The undertaking, which began last year, has been helmed by Dr. Josiah Poon from the University of Sydney’s School of Information Technologies, and Professor Kelvin Chan, joint chair of TCM at the Faculty of Pharmacy at the University and at the University of Western Sydney.
“Unlike Western practices, TCM remedies aren’t subject to clinical trials but—as the government looks to regulate practitioners from 2012—there is a growing demand to prove the effectiveness of TCM with quantitative, empirical evidence,” said Dr. Poon via press release. “Our research applies data mining techniques and builds algorithms to ascertain the two or three core herbs used to treat particular ailments.”
The University began its project by working with the Beijing-based agency the Chinese Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences to build data on the efficacy of TCM treatments for insomnia.
“It’s not enough to analyze the 120 herbs and 400 or so prescriptions used to cure insomnia,” said Dr. Poon. “We also factor in the four or five body types identified by TCM, as each body type responds differently to herbs. “We have managed to find two or three herbs that seem to be very important for all insomnia treatments. The feedback on our results from Beijing has been favorable, and consistent with the theory of TCM as documented by centuries-old literature.”
After completing its work on insomnia the group turned its research to focus on top ranking public health issues of concern in both China and Australia—diabetes and prolonging the survival of lung cancer patients.
The area of herbal and complementary medicines is a major industry in Australia, and is being increasingly recognized in the health policies of the federal and state governments—so much so that in July of 1997 the University of Sydney established The Herbal Medicines Research and Education Centre (HMREC) at its Faculty of Pharmacy, with the intention of carrying out high quality research and education on herbal and complementary medicines.
In light of the recently enacted ban by the European Union of all unlicensed herbal medicines, Dr. Poon told The Wall Street Journal he hoped that his study would help lend greater credibility to the safety and efficacy of certain TCM practices. “Once we can show to Western medical doctors that these are not wishy-washy or superstitious ways of dealing with health but have a scientific base, then things will change,” he said. “But it will take time. It won’t happen overnight.”