The Power of the Machine and the Beauty of the Garden: Can Eastern and Western Medicines Converge?
East oriental medicine such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Japanese Kampo or Indian Ayurveda often provokes skepticism in the professional medical environment. And for the right reason: despite thousands of years of empirical observations, oriental practices are still lacking scientific evidence based on verified experiments. Moreover, it is hard to comprehend within the frame of the European thesaurus the TCM concepts of Qi as life gathering or the Ayurveda notions of Vita, Pitta and Kapha. Can anyone intelligibly explain the meaning of Vita and that it is composed of air and space? Or the concept of Shen-nong, in particular implying the lungs’ relation to metal?
In general, can the methods of modern science and technology be applied to verify such ancient concepts?
Body as a Machine vs. Garden.
The crucial distinctions between European and traditional oriental health practices is the notion of Health vs. Medicine. Although “health” and “medicine” are commonly used interchangeably in various contexts, there is a decisive difference between them. European medicine was adhering to the presumption that diseases mainly arise from erroneous behavior or unreliable functioning of individual body organs, partly genetically determined. Hence the therapy was historically focused on deficiencies of separate organs manifested through physiological features, e.g., skin color, gait, BMI (body mass index), pulse rate, blood pressure, etc., with the attempt to bring it back to the “normal conditions” often by means of radical interventions.
This approach is reflected in the overall structure of contemporarily healthcare system split along various disciplines: oncology, genecology, gastroenterology, cardiology… The human body resembled a machine with a set of mechanical spare parts. When some are damaged, they must be fixed or replaced. A crucial principle underlying all complex systems (and human organism is one of the most complex systems) that sum of the parts does not constitute the whole was practically neglected.
Contrary to that, oriental physicians believed that the body is an organic whole where all its parts are interconnected and can pathologically influence each other. There is no such thing as a partial health. People feel themselves healthy as long as their organisms are capable to maintain stability under an influx of real-life influences such as stress, psychic overload, microorganisms, fungi, allergens, parasites, etc. The possibility of a disease may not spring from the failure of a distinct body part (organ), although it can be manifested as such, but can be the property of the whole organism (e.g., with elderly people who may feel themselves unhealthy although all their physical parameters remain within the norm).
Ancient oriental physicians perceived body as a landscape, a functional macrosystem constantly interacting with the environment. If a river stream is contaminated, it may not lead to the pollution of the whole freshwater, but if the ecological balance is distorted, the river may be turn into a swamp.
The latest achievements in nanotechnology, the design of miniature nanosensors capable of tracking multiple physiological parameters of the human body can bring modern medicine closer to the ideas of holistic health. There are some good examples such as smart tattoos designed by the University of Illinois. Such a tattoo represents an implantable skin mesh of computer fibres thinner than a human hair that can monitor and quantify human body’s inner processes. Similar research in the area of electronic skin is carried be the team of experts from Northwestern University’s medical school or in Chicago together with the University of Tokyo.
Miniaturization of devices leads to getting smaller and smaller down to the size of dust. The researches in UC Berkeley, MIT and the University of California, Los Angeles, are preoccupied with Smart Dust , the arrays of full computers with antennas, each much smaller than a grain of sand that can organise themselves inside the body into as-needed networks. Though still in the initial stage, such technologies can allow a pervasive monitoring of the individual health status.
Body as a regulated self.
The TCM Shen-nong teaches that the body is an organic whole where each of its 5 elements (heart, liver, spleen, lung, kidney) complements each other to perform life activity. The 5 elements are connected via so-called meridians, this distribution network of Qi. The disruption of connections provokes disharmony and disease.
To help the body to regain its balance a physician needs to constantly tune the therapy to the body response. But to spot and understand physiological feedbacks is more Art than Science.
Modern nanosensors can not only collect biofeedbacks, but react on them, exerting control over complex chemical reactions and metabolical processes within the organism.
In case of acquired diabetes (DM-2), one of the examples of the body metabolic distortions, the beta cells located in pancreas are either damaged or fail to produce the required amount of insulin.
To keep the glucose levels under control, the researchers at the University of North Carolina and NC State created a smart patch. The patch is coated with culturally produced human beta cells that are responsible for monitoring the excess of sugar in the bloodstream. Tiny microneedles are attached containing the glucose-sensing enzyme. Poked into capillaries, the enzyme spots the sugar increase and communicates this message back to the beta cells. The mechanism is fixed and beta cells regain their functions.
4 pillars of TCM Diagnostics.
Looking/smelling, listening, asking and pulse palpation are the 4 pillars of TCM diagnostics. Body fluids exerted in urine or sweat perform an important metabolic function of “cleaning the body” from toxins and wastes. TCM doctors paid a lot of attention to sniffing even tasting urine to diagnose Kidney Exhaustion Qi (Xu) or Stagnant Bladder Qi (Excess). Modern technologies allow to run such tests in a more elegant way. Moreover, it may become part of the daily routine. HealBe, a company specialized in wearable devices and wellness applications, is raising “crowd funding” to create device that will quantify sugar level in the urine. GlucosAlarm can be simply installed in a toilet. Sensors will be measuring sugar, but also some proteins, e.g., albumin as well as ketones, pH, etc. to detect a wide range of disorders such as urinary tract infection, kidney diseases and many others.
Smell exhaled through breathing is another important parameter of TCM diagnostics. It may signal Lung Qi and Lung Yan excess or deficiencies that may cause, e.g., lung cancer or gastrological disorders.
The new wave of breath analyzer technologies, such as Na-Nose designed by the Israel Institute of Technology researchers under the leadership of Prof. Hossam Haick can verify empirical sniffing with objective analysis. Coated with tiny nanowires Na-Nose sensors are reacting on chemical compounds exhaled with the breath measuring the concentration of cancer biomarkers contained in them. The technology is successfully applied to diagnose lung cancer or various types of gastrological disorders.
The vitality of Qi and immunotherapy.
TCM and Ayurveda physicians believed that vitality is achieved via activation of the vital energy of Qi and Yin/Yang harmonious interplay, the approach that resonates with the modern concept of immunotherapy.” Contrary to such methods as chemotherapy that suppresses not only the tumor cells, but the whole immune system, the immunotherapy uses “body’s own immune system to help fight cancer”. For example, such medications as Keytruda (pembrolizumab) or Iskador/Mistletoe (medication derived from semi-parasitic plant that grows on oaks and other trees in Europe and Asia) are already used to combat melanoma or lung cancer by activating the immune system.
But the effective antitumor immunity requires a clear understanding of how the immune system senses and responds to threats, including pathogens and tumors.
The researchers from Tel Aviv University under supervision of Prof. Dan Peer noticed that Mantle Cell Lymphoma MCL is associated with the intensified activity of a certain gene, namely the gene CCND1. When over-expressed, the CCND1 gene produces too much of a Cyclin D1 protein, sometimes 3,000 – 15,000 times too many. To reduce and regulate protein production the scientists have invented the CCND1 blocker: the synthetic strand of RNA molecules (siRNA). By targeting RNA molecules that convey genetic information from the DNA to the ribosomes, the inner-cell structures where new protein chain are assembled (translated) from amino acids, siRNA disables its ability to express a specific gene. To deliver siRNA precisely to CCMD1 gene, the former is loaded into the lipid-based nanoparticles (LNPs) coated with antibodies. Scientists believe that such method could be applied not only for MCL but also for other malicious forms of cancer.
Traditional oriental practices gained over 5000 years of empirical observation of human organism. Unfortunately, the absence of scientific evidence often gave way to all sorts of charlatans, quackery and quasihealers. European medicine, although younger, has some outspoken advantages. Driven by industrial and scientific developments it has enriched healthcare with the discoveries of genomics and applied physics (e.g., nanotechnology, microprocessors, microwave and nuclear technology, signal and image processing, etc.). The rapid expansion of quantum sensors designed to convert the body physiological characteristics such as pulse rate, blood pressure, ECG (electrocardiogram), EEG (electroencephalogram), HEG (hemoencephalogram), REG (rheoencephalogram), PPG (photoplethysmogram), ENG (electronystagmogram) and EMG (electromyogram) signals, local thermal (infrared) emission, skin wetness, etc. into sequences of electric pulses and further into digital signals as well as implanted nano and biosensors able to track chemical reactions inside the body will allow to test oriental concepts with objective experiments. If such experiments are successful, the oriental therapy and the European medicine (“the school medicine”) can be transformed into a single health science.