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Gene Technology Launched to Decode Traditional Chinese Medicine
Chinese scientists have launched a herbal medicine gene database project this month which is expected to combine traditional Chinese medical science with gene pharmaceutical technology.

Chen Zhu, director of the China Human Genome Center at Shanghai said on Tuesday at the ongoing 2002 International Human Genome Meeting that gene technology would be used to decode the mysterious effect of traditional Chinese medicine.

The project, named "the world's largest native compound gene database", will detect more than 5,000 effective elements of traditional Chinese medicine and put them into the herbal medicine gene database.

"Human genome technology has brought vital changes to the bio-pharmaceutical industry, and China will make it a platform to develop traditional Chinese medical science," said Chen Zhu, also vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

For thousands of years, the Chinese have used mixtures of plant and animal bones to cure disease with a success rate that continues to baffle modern science.

With the completion of the international genome research in 2003, Chen noted, scientists would fully understand the "human genetic map", making further research into genetic information relating to human disease and lifespan possible.

After the native compound gene database is established, Chinese scientists will use all the 5,000 effective elements discovered in traditional Chinese medicine to test disease-related human genes, in a bid to decipher traditional Chinese medicine.

"It's a tremendous project," a Chinese scientist involved in the research told Xinhua.

The most famous Chinese medical encyclopedia Bencao Gangmu (or Compendium of Materia Medica) records only 1,892 herbs. Another medical book Zhonghua Bencao published in 1995 contains over 8,000 herbs, and the native compound gene database will cover the most important of these plants.

Professor Wang Qiaochu of the Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine has succeeded in curing insomnia by using leaves of groundnuts, but it's hard for him to explain how the herb works.

"Traditional Chinese medicine has existed over thousands of years, and a qualified doctor must recite hundreds of prescriptions by heart which have been passed down for generations, before he practises medicine independently," said Wang. He added that only within the past century had scholars of traditional Chinese medicine started to probe the mechanism and effective elements of these treatments.

Sir Walter Bodmer, a gene researcher from Oxford University told Xinhua that the greatest difficulty in combining traditional Chinese medicine and gene technology was to detect which elements of traditional Chinese medicine were useful or futile.

"This is why we should build a herbal medicine database first; we must find out the pathogenesis, which is an urgent task for all the world's top scholars gathered at the meeting," he said.

"I hope that some day a Western doctor can give a prescription of traditional Chinese medicine by using information from the herbal medicine database," said Wang Qiaochu.

(Xinhua News Agency April 17, 2002)


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