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Contribution to the STF Newsletter by STF2 Fellow, Edward Welbeck

30/05/2012
Asia/Shanghai

My first trip to Shanghai was in the summer of 2006 as part of a joint collaboration between my sending University, London Metropolitan University and my current hosts Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine (SHUTCM); forming a key part of my PhD studies. I had fond memories of that trip, although it was a relatively short stay lasting only 6 weeks. The city, its people and the whole cultural experience left a lasting impression on me and I’d hoped to return one day in the future. To my surprise, towards the end of my studies in the winter of 2009, the EU-China Science and Technology Fellowship 2nd intake (STF 2) presented itself and I decided to “toss my hat into the ring”. I had hoped to be selected as a EU fellow but anticipated tough competition, so considered myself fortunate when I made it through.

 Around 2 years have passed since then and although the STF 2 programme has come to its finale, my research life here in Shanghai will continue on for a further 12 months to complete my postdoctoral placement. As a foreigner, working in the field of traditional Chinese herbal medicine (TCM), in China, can be quite challenging at times. Compared to my Chinese colleagues I soon realized that whatever I thought I knew on the topic was miniscule in depth and superficial in understanding. Numerous TCM herbs or formulae that I am experiencing for the first time just seem like a general working knowledge base to many of my native co-workers. Even popular well known Chinese herbal ingredients can seem quite exotic. If we take for example Ganoderma lucidum (língzhī 灵芝 in Chinese), a fungus type organism that looks a bit like a large, shiny, red/orange mushroom. It has been used for medical purposes for more than 2000 years, fabled as the “mushroom of immortality; the elixir of life”, “a fungus of spiritual potency” or simply, a “magic fungus”. I personally had never heard of it, but if you ask many in my field they can probably quote it like I can quote the phonetic alphabet, amongst many other random general knowledge trivia! Published reports claim ‘Lingzhi’’ has been used for the treatment of migraine, hypertension, arthritis, bronchitis, asthma, anorexia, gastritis, haemorrhoids, diabetes, hypercholesterolaemia, nephritis, dysmenorrhoea, constipation, lupus erythematosis, hepatitis, and cardiovascular problems. It has also been claimed to possess (a) anti-cancer (including leukaemia), (b) anti-ageing and (c) anti-microbial/viral activities including anti-human immunodeficiency virus (HIV); (Paterson 2006). Come to think of it, logic suggests “língzhī” might be confused as a type of ‘magic mushroom’, but since it does not possess any hallucinogenic properties I will stick to my original belief about it being new to me. However, not all herbs have escaped my seemingly limited intellect with the most celebrated of all TCM documented as the roots and rhizome of Ginseng (rénshēn 人参 in Chinese). I can only assume everyone on the entire planet has at least heard of this Chinese medicine, whilst in my experience, all others are tiny drops in a vast ocean waiting to be discovered by someone like myself.

My hosts’ being a TCM University specialize in a broad range of areas from basic principles, clinical applications, the rehabilitation of patients as well as the analysis of herbal medicines. These broad categories can be subdivided into over 300 principal groups of TCM including: basic theories of Chinese medicine, diagnostics of Chinese medicines, anatomy, pathology, pharmaceutical botany, pharmacology of traditional Chinese medical formulae, microbiology, the science of acupuncture, and moxibustion being amongst some of the most important. The University has affiliations with 15 medical centers/ organizations including affiliated hospitals, research institutes, other municipal hospitals and hospitals with special departments.

I am based at the Institute of Chinese Materia Medica under the directorship of Prof. Zheng-Tao Wang, whose group mainly concentrates on the pharmacology, pharmacy, pharmaceutical analysis, pharmaceutical chemistry, pharmacognosy and biotechnology of TCM. My work primarily focuses on developing new technologies that can be used in the ongoing analysis of Chinese herbs and herbal formulations using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) as the primary analytical tool. This involves an assessment into TCM herbal quality whether they are the crude drug, decoction pieces or patent medicine preparations. Quality can be expressed as the qualitative and quantitative analysis of single indexed components (e.g. what’s inside and how much is present) but analyzing single indexed components cannot fully reflect the inner quality of TCM, since thousands of components can exist within a single crude drug. Nonetheless the challenge remains trying to improve on the current analytical techniques available in the analysis of crude drugs, decoction pieces or patent medicine preparations, which can only assist in improving on herbal medicine safety.

Being the first foreign postdoctoral researcher in not only Prof. Wang research group but also the entire university has filled me with a great sense of pride and I feel fully integrated within the group.  A reasonable proportion of the staff and mainly the students can speak a good level of English, but the real fun comes from sometimes having to improvise when there is a lack of words to fully communicate. Literature searches also can be tricky, since the potential to replicate somebody else’s work is plausible (owing to many articles already being published in Chinese) and at times the help of my colleagues and my student has been invaluable for the numerous challenges of a researcher. On a professional level I feel I have already learned a great deal in China and I believe my work is progressing in a forward direction. On a personal note, although this great Chinese adventure may be finishing for many of the STF fellows (as some depart from China in the coming weeks or months), I personally will take pride in meeting and knowing each and every one of you… (Not forgetting the STF office). It’s been a fantastic experience and one I personally won’t be forgetting in a hurry…  

Reference: Paterson, R. R. M. (2006). "Ganoderma – A therapeutic fungal biofactory." Phytochemistry 67(18): 1985-2001

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