Traditional medicine looks at results, while modern medicine advances by understanding the mechanism of action, cause and effect
Traditional medicine and modern medicine differ in many ways. Traditional medicine (or TM) is largely empirical while modern medicine (MM) is largely reductionist in approach. TM is old, dating back to millennia while MM is at best 300 years in the making. TM looks at results, not how the treatment works while MM advances by understanding the mechanism of action, and cause and effect. TM has been used directly on people while MM proceeds by testing first on cells and organs of animals and then on humans. TM uses material from local flora and fauna; MM isolates molecules, synthesises them in the lab and makes them available. TM invariably uses formulations, extracts and combinations, MM works by and large with single molecules and compounds. TM has a lot of home remedies while MM insists on prescription drugs. TM comes with a cultural baggage while MM does not. TM is cheap and easy on the purse while MM can be expensive. And TM is far more prevalent in rural areas for a variety of reasons. MM is more easily available in urban areas. Many modern hospitals and specialists consider TM as inexact, unproven and even useless. This has relegated TM to the back burners, to be used only as a backup or add-on.
Can the twain meet? Can we understand how TM works using the knowledge we have gained using the tools of modern chemistry, molecular and cell biology, genetics and pharmacology? This has been the goal of Professor M.S. Valiathan of Manipal University. Both an eminent cardiac surgeon, and scholar in the history of medicine, he has initiated a programme to understand and rationalise some ayurvedic medications using the tools of modern biology. In this he has partnered with Professor Subhash Lakhotia of Banaras Hindu university, who is an eminent molecular geneticist and cell biologist, to study the mechanisms of action of two well-known ayurvedic formulations – Amalaki Rasayana (or AR) and Rasa Sindoor (or RS).
To do so, they collaborated with the famous Kottakkal Arya Vaidya Sala and had the formulations made as per recorded practices, determined the components using modern methods of chromatography, ensured no lot-to-lot variations, and thus made certain of the quality, purity and identity of the test material.
Next, they decided to work not directly on human subjects, but animal models. Here, Prof Lakhotia brought his knowledge and experience on working with the fruit-fly (Drosphila) as the experimental animal. Fruit-flies have short lives (a month or so), come in huge varieties with genetic differences, can be genetically modified at their larval stage so that one can determine the effect of the loss of, or addition of, genes on their physiology and pathology. And we know a great lot about its anatomy, physiology and cell biology. Thus, we can create disease models of the fly with ease, using such genetic and physiological manipulations. Plus, they can be studied in large numbers at a time so that results are statistically significant. Drosophila is thus an excellent model to study the effect of TM (AR and RS).
In the first set of experiments, the team fed the flies known portions (0 to 2 per cent) in the food as supplement of AR or RS and studied how the formulation affects their life span, ability to withstand stress (upon changing the surrounding temperature) and tolerance to starvation, They found that the two formulations affect the biology of the flies significantly, but with some differences in specific situations. AR increases the life span if given as 0.5 per cent supplement. Higher doses do not, and are indeed harmful. RS had no effect on longevity, but was again harmful at high concentrations. Both AR and RS increase the fecundity, but with some difference. Interestingly RS, which contains mercury (a known poison) as a component, was not harmful or poisonous. It turns out that the ayurvedic procedure of preparing RS generates nanoparticles of HgS (25-35 nm) and at such sizes mercury is not harmful! (Those interested may read the entire paper by accessing <PLOS ONE 7(5): e37113. doi.10.1371/journal. pone.0037113>)
A step further
Prof Lakhotia went one step further, and attempted to see how AR and RS affect flies genetically modified to display neuro-degeneration, and thus modelling Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disorders. His team found that supplementation with AR or RS in the diet of the flies prevented the formation and accumulation of “inclusion bodies” and of amyloid plaques (associated with Alzheimer’s disease). These are insoluble particles that hinder the conduction of electrical signals in the nervous system. Supplementation was also seen to suppress cell death (apoptosis). AR and RS were seen to increase the levels of certain proteins known as hnRNPs, known to lead to more robust levels of gene expression. The Lakhotia group concludes in their latest paper (Current Science 105 (12), 1711, December 25, 2013) that AR and RS provide holistic relief from the increasingly common neurodegenerative disorders.
So, the twain can and do meet. We look forward to similar studies on other TM products.