Biotech and Herbal Medicine

Traditional Chinese Medicine has developed along with the history of China and has had great influence on medicine development in China and nearby countries, including Korea and Japan. Traditional Chinese Medicine includes, but is not limited to, herbal medicine, acupuncture and dietary supplements. Compared to modern medicine, which is supported by science, traditional Chinese medicine has evolved from shared experiences passed verbally between generations and limited written documents. 


In Taiwan, a small island country, most people seek opinions from both traditional Chinese and modern medical doctors. However, there are concerns about the safety and effectiveness of traditional Chinese medicine. With the current development of biotechnology, many researchers in Taiwan are focused on using biotechnology to investigate the safety and applications of herbal medicine or botanical drugs. The herbal medicine research program at the Agricultural Biotechnology Research Center (ABRC), Academia Sinica, Taiwan, is dedicated to characterizing immune modulating compounds or anti-cancer ingredients from medicinal plants grown locally in Taiwan. They use a combination of LC-MS/GC-MS, genomics, transcriptomics, and metabolomics. After potential compounds have been identified, these phytocompounds or herbal extracts are subject to extensive studies for functional mechanisms as well as comprehensive testing with in vitro assays and in vivo models to determine their toxicity and effective doses. These research results have several patents issued in different countries, such as the potential use of polyacetylenic compounds for type 2 diabetes (US 8147880 B2), immune modulation function of butanol extract of Bidens pilosa (US 8048860 B2), and the adjuvant effect of Dioscorea extracts to enhance immune response (US 7972645 B2).

Other countries have also taken steps to use biotechnology to analyze herbal medicine for new drug development. Successful examples include: the identification of major antioxidative compounds from green tea extracts (1, 2), bioactive ingredients from Ginkgo biloba (3), and the potential use of St. John's wort to treat depression (4, 5)

However, unlike single compound drugs, herbal medicine is a mixture of plant extracts. Several factors could have dramatic influence on the effectiveness of the herbal medicine, including: the origin, genotype, part used, and/or growth conditions (weather, soil, and seasons) of the plants; the manufacturing process and the possibility of additive effects of bioactive compounds in plant extracts. Therefore, it is important to establish standards for Good Agriculture Practice (GAP) that can monitor and manage the quality of medicinal plants. 


With rapid advances in biotechnological methods, analysis of medicinal plants and subsequent drug development has progressed into a new stage and certainly provides hopes for new treatments of chronic diseases.

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1.         Khan N, Mukhtar H. 2013. Tea and health: studies in humans. Current pharmaceutical design 19:6141-6147.

2.         Kim HS, Quon MJ, Kim JA. 2014. New insights into the mechanisms of polyphenols beyond antioxidant properties; lessons from the green tea polyphenol, epigallocatechin 3-gallate. Redox biology 2:187-195.

3.         van Beek TA, Montoro P. 2009. Chemical analysis and quality control of Ginkgo biloba leaves, extracts, and phytopharmaceuticals. Journal of chromatography. A 1216:2002-2032.

4.         Dwyer AV, Whitten DL, Hawrelak JA. 2011. Herbal medicines, other than St. John's Wort, in the treatment of depression: a systematic review. Alternative medicine review : a journal of clinical therapeutic 16:40-49.

5.         Linde K, Ramirez G, Mulrow CD, Pauls A, Weidenhammer W, Melchart D. 1996. St John's wort for depression--an overview and meta-analysis of randomised clinical trials. Bmj 313:253-258.

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