Study elucidates how gene sequencing is helping to untangle precise TCM effects

Traditional Chinese Medicine has one of the longest histories of any herbal system known to man. And it has a thick sheaf of modern research behind it.

Much TCM research muddled from the Western point of view

The problem with most of this research, at least from a Western perspective, is that the materials being studied are often poorly characterized. Most TCM preparations consist of multiple herbal components, with some degree of variability in the makeup depending on the source. So, when studies use materials identified, for example, as Huoxiang Zhengqi Powder, Sanren Decoction or Shenling Baishu Powder, it’s hard to know exactly what has been studied and what components of those materials are responsible for the effects that have been observed.

As a result, while some of the findings could be seen as strongly suggestive, they cannot be considered definitive, at least when viewed thoroughly through the lens of the RCT model that obtains in the West. (With that being said, weak characterization of study materials has been a failing of many Western herbal studies, too.)

The new study was published in the journalFrontiers in Plant Science​. It was the work of researchers associated with several universities, hospitals and research institutes in China.

The authors noted that while many TCM preparations have shown good effects in clinical practice, it is not always clear why.

“The functional components and the corresponding pharmacological mechanism of the herbs are unclear,” they said.

Third generation sequencing makes rapid, thorough assays easier

The authors noted that the advanced genetic sequencing technology has made this kind of investigation possible. The first generation, or Sanger sequencing, was difficult to apply to complicated plant genomes and was slow and expensive to boot. Next-gen sequencing was the second iteration of the technology, but according to the researchers still suffered from it “[C]ertain drawbacks, such as short read length (usually 200-800 bp), base mismatches, GC preference, and template migration during PCR amplification, which might influence the accuracy and integrity of sequencing data.”

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