Yung-Ch-Cheng – The efficacy of Chinese medicine
Type of Spiritual Experience
All the plants mentioned have anti-viral activity and that may be why they are effective against tumours
A description of the experience
“Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water,” Yung-Chi Cheng, a pharmacology professor at Yale School of Medicine, says with a chuckle. “People forget that one of the oldest, most effective, scientifically proven drugs came from traditional medicine—aspirin.” The ancient Egyptians used dried myrtle leaves to treat aches and pains, and Hippocrates, the fourth-century B.C. Greek physician, considered the father of Western medicine, prescribed an extract of willow bark for fevers. But it wasn’t until the 1800s that European scientists figured out that the active ingredient in both is salicylic acid and synthesized it. Today aspirin, at pennies a dose, is arguably the world’s most cost-effective drug.
“It all started with people observing willow bark was effective and then using it to treat illness,” Cheng says. “In this case, science followed the medicine, not the other way around.”
I follow Cheng on a tour of his labyrinthine lab at Yale, where his team is analyzing the characteristics of a variety of herbs to investigate their medicinal value. Amid the sighs and gurgles of various chemical experiments, I catch whiffs of black pepper, rosemary, camphor, ginger, chili, cinnamon, and other scents I can’t identify. The back of my throat tingles. I think I might sneeze. I notice I’m hungry for Thai food.
On his desk, Cheng has a bobblehead doll in his likeness. A gift from the staff, it depicts him in a suit rather than the slightly baggy sweaters he generally favors, but it captures his thoughtful demeanor, receding hair, and large earlobes, which according to Chinese tradition signify longevity. On first impression Cheng may seem like a stereotypical advocate for traditional Chinese medicine. Though he’s been in the United States for five decades since emigrating from Taiwan, he still speaks English with a strong accent, and at 74, he comes from a generation of Chinese that still has a deep attachment to many of the old traditions. “But I didn’t really know much about Chinese medicine,” he says, noting that as a child, his parents took him to doctors practicing science-based medicine.
His colleague Shwu-Huey Liu, an expert in pharmaceutical chemistry who’s fluent in classical Mandarin, searched the Yale library’s large collection of early Chinese medical texts. In an ancient book titled Treatise on Cold Damage, printed on slightly wrinkled bamboo paper, she found an 1,800-year-old recipe for a mixture of skullcap, licorice, peony, and Chinese date, described as a treatment for “diarrhea, abdominal pain, and scorching heat in the anus.”
Cheng’s team began trying different blends of the herbal formula. Over the past 20 years, they have proceeded from tests on mice to patients undergoing cancer treatment, overseen by the National Cancer Institute. As Cheng had hoped, almost all the patients who took the herbal formula experienced relief from nausea and other gastrointestinal distress, but something else happened: Their tumors shrank faster than those of patients who hadn’t taken the herbal formula.
“I didn’t expect that,” Cheng says. “So now the question is, Why?”