Progress made in TCM clinical research

Both Mr Oon Ming Liang ("No benefit to having TCM services in polyclinics"; last Saturday) and Mr Warren Tan Kok Yong ("What's the stand on non-evidence-based medicine"?; Tuesday) labelled traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) as non-evidence-based, criticising the lack of clinical trials.

In fact, much progress has been made in TCM clinical research in recent years.

The Compound Danshen Dripping Pill, used mainly for treating coronary heart disease, was the first TCM product to pass the United States Food and Drug Administration's rigorous Phase II clinical trials in 2010 ("TCM brewing a name for itself in the West"; Nov 30, 2010), and Phase III trials have been approved.

Other products have followed suit and major pharmaceutical companies, such as GlaxoSmithKline, have set up research units to explore TCM.

There are tremendous hurdles in conducting clinical research into TCM.

The diagnostic and treatment process of TCM is markedly different from that of mainstream medicine, making it difficult to come to a consensus when selecting patients for clinical trials and creating control tests.

TCM products also contain multiple ingredients, each having thousands of different compounds all working in synergy. Researchers face the challenge of identifying the active compounds and isolating their effects.

Arguably, the biggest obstacle to clinical research in TCM is the lack of experts with knowledge of both fields.

Scientists need to understand the complexities of TCM diagnostics and formulations, while TCM physicians need to understand the processes of evidence-based medicine.

It is heartening to note that the Health Ministry has set up a research grant for collaborations between scientific researchers and TCM institutions ("$3m govt grant for TCM research"; Dec 16, 2012).

I hope this will create more opportunities for intellectual discussion between experts in both fields.

Mutual understanding, cooperation and constructive criticism can help put TCM into the evidence-based mainstream.

In the meantime, we should not reject TCM blindly. It has survived for 2,000 years because it has improved patients' quality of life all this while.

Evidence is not lacking, it is forthcoming.

See Yi Xiang

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