This past Thursday, Dr. George Y. C. Wong gave the keynote address on the globalization of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), a colloquium sponsored by the department of Asian & Middle Eastern Languages & Literatures. Wong is a fourth generation TCM practitioner and senior research scientist at the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City who specializes in cancer. He presented the history of TCM, a medical practice that has persisted for four thousand to five thousand years.

In explaining the underlying theories of TCM, Wong emphasized the connection between the mind and the body and the importance of categorizing symptoms through narratives.  Wong stated that TCM differentiated between external and internal causes of disease. The six external causes were wind, cold, heat, damp, dryness, and summer heat. He also said that there are two internal causes, which can be divided between emotional and endogenous disorders. He listed the seven categories of emotional imbalances as unrestrained happiness, anger, anxiety, pensiveness, grief, fear and fright. The endogenous causes were improper diet, excessive physical challenge, and injuries.

In contrast to Western Medicine, Wong said, TCM provides a more individualized method of diagnosis. The four methods of diagnosis include taking the medical data, smell and sound, visual inspection, especially an in depth inspection of the tongue, and pulse diagnosis of the patient. He went on to explain the pulse uniquely identifies the individual and pulse recognition takes years to master. The TCM belief is that energy flows in channels throughout the body, and there are three positions on each arm that correspond to the major organ systems: heart, liver, digestive system, lung, kidney, focused on the adrenal gland, and the vital gate, through which flows vital energy. Wong said that there are twenty-seven patterns reflecting either inherent or abnormal energies, in which multiple patterns overlap.

He ascribed TCM with having a very complex and logical system of diagnosis. The TCM practitioner identifies the person’s diagnostic type according to the eight principles of diagnosis: problems with interior or exterior and yin and yang, problems within the nature of hot or cold, and problems with weak or strong constitution. Then, the practitioner would assign herbs according to the five tastes and five colors: sour and cyan for the liver, bitter and red for the heart, sweet and yellow for the digestive system, spicy and white for the lung, and salty and black for the kidney. Wong said the characteristic of the herbs have an affinity for the body parts, texture and cooling and warming abilities. The types of TCM therapy include acupuncture, massage therapy, herbal medicine and nutrition therapy, he said.

Wong went on to describe the negative aspects of Chinese medicine, saying that that the success and practice of TCM are hard to assess by scientific means, that diagnosis and treatment are subjective and lastly that it is hard to obtain good quality herbs since the herbs are indigenous to certain areas. He also stated that TCM is more effective in the treatment and prevention of chronic illnesses since the process of improvement is very slow and steady.

In his own research in breast cancer at the Strang Cancer Prevention Center, which closed in 2008, Wong studied the effects of natural breast cancer prevention with the levels of estrogen in the body. In estrogen-responsive breast cancer, the Western medical approach is to prescribe tamoxifen to pre-menopausal women and an aromatase inhibitor to menopausal women to inhibit the role of estrogen in the tumorous breast tissue. According to Wong, both these medications potentially have severe long-term side effects. Also, in the body, endogenous estrogen estradiol (E2) is dangerous, while estrone (E1) and estriol (E3) are healthy. The main estrogen metabolites, 2-hydroxyestrone (2-OH1) is protective in the body, while 16alpha hydroxyestrone (16a-OH1) is damaging, and the ratio between the two is a biomarker for breast cancer risk. Using TCM methods as treatment, Wong’s research group found that lyceum barbarum, a goji berry, regulates 2-OH1/16alpha-OH1 and detoxifies E2 into E3 in his publication Nutrition and Cancer in 2009. He also found similar results with cornus officinalis in his Molecular Medicine Reports in 2012.

Wong explained that it is routine in China to integrate TCM into conventional cancer treatment. Researchers in San Anselmo, California published Integrative Cancer Therapies in 2011 showing that TCM in addition to supplements to conventional treatment significantly improved survival in a ten-year follow-up on 193 colon cancer patients at different stages. The same research term published that TCM cancer treatments and supplements for 235 stage-3 and stage-4 lung cancer patients significantly improved survival over a ten-year follow-up period.

Wong argued that the integration of TCM with Western Medicine would reduce medication requirements and minimize side effects. He stated that TCM is effective in treating cardiovascular disease, diabetes and its complications, viral Hepatitis B and C, lung diseases, digestive issues, autoimmune disorders, mental issues, and the health concerns specific to men and women. In his own work with cancer, Wong explained that TCM is not powerful enough to bring about a remission, but can slow down the progress by helping to regulate the body while aiding the patient in maintaining a reasonable performance status, especially with the reduction of side effects of chemotherapy and radiation.

As for the integration of TCM with Western Medicine, Wong advised that both TCM and Western Medicine practitioners be patient in explaining the nature of their respective medical treatments to each other, keep each other informed of the patient’s progress, and be cautious while keeping an open mind of alternative medical treatments.

Dr. Wong