Stem-cell scientist looks East for great leap forward

Zoe Corbyn meets the biologist working to boost Sino-British links and probe Chinese medicine's secrets

September 18, 2008

Stephen Minger retrieves a bottle of Chinese herbal medicine from his office shelf. "When I go to China I buy this on the high street," he explains. "It's for coughs, and it's fantastic."

The so-called formula is but one of an estimated 100,000 combinations of plant, mineral and sometimes animal extracts prescribed for a wide range of illnesses in China by practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

The working mechanisms for most formulas remain unknown, but Dr Minger wants to change that. That desire explains why he has just returned from his fourth visit to China in less than two years.

Dr Minger, director of the Stem Cell Biology Laboratory at King's College London, is leading a two-year project to establish links between UK and Chinese scientists to study the possible beneficial effects of TCMs. The project, on behalf of the British Government, aims to feed into the development of new drugs.

"You look at TCM and it is booming in China. People really believe in it, and I have to say I have begun to believe in it," he told Times Higher Education. "What I want to do is demystify it. I want to get it down to - if possible - what is it in this that really does something? What is it in here that, if you have got a bad cough and you (feel like you) are dying, makes your chest quit hurting?"

As an example of the "scientific perspective" he wants to bring to bear on TCMs, Dr Minger cited a recent paper published in a top journal by Western-trained Chinese scientists dissecting how a certain TCM formula can be an effective treatment for a form of leukaemia. "There are three compounds (in the formula) - none of which individually works on its own," he explained.

His project, which officially started in April 2007 and will end next year, provides Dr Minger with a small budget to travel to China chaperoning various UK scientists.

The brief, he explained, is to identify who in China the UK should be working with to develop the potential of TCMs. The focus is on forming partnerships with Chinese researchers rather than exploiting traditional knowledge.

The scheme is part of a wider Foreign and Commonwealth Office project that has appointed a number of "theme leaders" to promote UK collaborations across different emerging economies and in different subject areas. It builds on a European Union-funded consortium of Chinese and Western scientists - from about 30 laboratories in more than 15 countries - who are interested in taking TCM into drug discovery. "There's a network of scientists that is already there; what I am trying to do is get the stem-cell researchers more interested in this," Dr Minger said.

From the position of thinking that TCM was "voodoo" and having "no interest in pursuing it", Dr Minger became converted to its potential in the early 2000s after observing the "significant biological effects" of some "goo" he applied to his cells.

"They grew processes a mile long," he said. "I realised very quickly that there was a lot in this."

That may well be, but it is hard to get funding to research TCMs. Dr Minger attributed this to snobbishness in the academic community, as Times Higher Education reported on 4 September ("Stem-cell expert says snobbery slows research"). Based on its initial data, his group tried to get funding to explore TCMs but got nowhere. In contrast, he said, it seemed relatively easy for scientists to attract money to investigate the health benefits of substances such as blueberries, chocolate and broccoli.

He admitted, however, that things are beginning to change. He said he could think of about ten or 15 UK scientists who have collaborations with the Chinese in the broad area.

Dr Minger himself now wants to again pursue his own research into the active ingredients in TCMs using human stem cells.

Much early-stage drug testing, he explained, relies on animal cells or human cells from a wide variety of sources. Using human stem cells - which can differentiate into any type of cell - would mean greater consistency (although scientists are currently struggling to make them routinely and at high volume).

Dr Minger's idea is to take TCMs "in their crude form" and screen them using the differentiated cells. Liver cells, for example, could be used to screen TCMs that have historically been associated with improved liver function. Those TCMs showing effects could then be broken down to enable the active ingredients to be found.

It is different from the "very reductionist" approach normally applied to drug discovery, where drugs are developed for particular targets. "Where has that got us? Big pharma is in dire straits because of this idea that we are going to develop drugs only against a single target ... I am saying let the biology dictate what the targets are."

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