Nobel win prompts debate over roles of traditional Chinese medicine, science

Tu Youyou has become the first Chinese woman to win a Nobel Prize, for her work in helping to create an anti-malaria medicine. The 84-year-old's route to the honour has been anything but traditional.
 
(Beijing) - China's Tu Youyou collects her country's first Nobel Prize for medicine next week for extracting an anti-malarial drug from a herb mentioned in a traditional text, but her award has prompted debate over the role of science in the practice.
Tu derived artemisinin from sweet wormwood, which she found cited in a 4th century traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) document as a fever treatment, developing a crucial weapon in the global fight against the mosquito-borne disease as resistance to other treatments spread.
Traditional medicine is a source of cultural pride in some Chinese quarters, with Beijing planning to expand its provision, and even Premier Li Keqiang seized on the Nobel award, hailing Tu's discovery as "a great contribution of TCM to the cause of human health".
But Nobel committee member Hans Forssberg was adamant: "It's very important that we are not giving a prize to the traditional medicine," he said, stressing that the award was only for scientific work that had been inspired by it.
TCM practitioners say her recognition could encourage similar research that may sideline the underpinnings of their theories.
TCM is based on a set of beliefs about human biology, including the existence of a life force, "qi", and that illness is the result of "imbalances" between the five elements -- fire, water, earth, metal and wood -- in the system.
There is no orthodox evidence for such concepts, and the respected scientific magazine Nature has described TCM as "largely just pseudoscience, with no rational mechanism of action for most of its therapies", calling them an "arcane array of potions and herbal mixtures".
In contrast, Tu chemically extracted the active ingredient of a single plant in isolation.
"Many fear that the recent Nobel Prize, which celebrates westernized Chinese medicine, will end up doing more harm than good for authentic traditional medical practice," said Lan Jirui, who has a booming TCM private practice in Beijing.
Describing her research as a victory for TCM was "reckless", said the state-run China Daily, arguing that would encourage Westernized reforms that ignore traditional theories about the body as a holistic system.
"You should not use Western science to 'cure' Chinese medicine," Lan said, calling the study of TCM from a rationalist perspective "essentially hopeless".
"The human body is very complicated -- you cannot see it only as a machine," he added. "The scariest thing is to lack confidence in your own traditions, to allow others to 'update' you, and then destroy what you had."
 

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