- Chinese Medicine
Chinese herb medicine has been used worldwide, particularly in Asia for thousands of years. Many safety concerns of toxins and metal contamination in Chinese medicine use have been raised.
In our project, we aim at playing a role of bridging synthetic biology science and social need by devoting our effect in analysis of the scope of Chinese medicine in Taiwan, identification the problems or issues in use, regulation and screening of Chinese herb medicine. Our goal is to design an eco-friendly and safe biosensor product, which is low-cost, effective and can be used by anyone to screen toxins in Chinese medicine.
Figure 1. The Project Framework of Herb Taster
In Asia, Chinese herb medicine plays an important role in Chinese food culture. Not only serving flavor aide, Chinese herb medicine has been used for health promotion, disease prevention, symptom relief, and illness treatment in Asia for thousands of years. In the past decade, use of Chinese herb as alternative medicine in coping with diseases has become more popular in western countries.
Figure 1a Chinese herb medicine in Chinese food culture
According to the social epidemiology analysis on use of Chinese medicine (in our Human Practice) (Table 1), we found that over 5% percent of Taiwanese people use Chinese medicine as the major medical resources for illness treatment. In 2013, over 10% of the Taiwan population had at least one outpatient visits of Chinese medicine service in the past month before interview survey date.
In our analysis, we also found evidence of potential problems in using Chinese medicine in Taiwan (Table 2). There were only near one third of the Taiwanese population knowing that our government imposes GMP regulation on the manufacturing Chinese medicine and that use of Chinese medicine requires a doctor’s prescription. However, there was 6.8% of them reporting the experience of purchasing Chinese medicine without the prescription. Inadequate knowledge and inappropriate use of Chinese medicine implies that our population are exposed to potential risks of health hazards.
However, potential risk of using Chinese medicine is not only limit to people’s misuse of Chinese herb medicine. The major safety concerns about Chinese medicine is toxin contamination. There have been studies and media reporting problems of toxin contamination in Chinese herb medicine.
Heavy metals and mycotoxins are the two main types of toxins contamination in Chinese medicine. These heavy metals and mycotoxins are toxic and thus harmful to human and animal’s health.
Figure 2. Potential Contamination in Chinese Herb Medicine
In Asian medical and food culture, Chinese herb medicine is commonly used, not only as medicine for disease treatment but also as nutrient supplements for health improvement. Due to the pattern of long-term use, safety concerns on toxins in Chinese medicine is taken into consideration seriously by the experts and government in Taiwan, probably more aggressively than the other countries in regulating food safety.
Learning from our field work of Human Practice, we understood issues in securing the safety of Chinese medicine. We interviewed and visited two Taiwan government divisions of Ministry of Health and Welfare: the department of Chinese Medicine and Pharmacy and Food and Drug Safety Administration. We knew in advance that on October 1, 2016 our government would amend the regulation and inaugurated new policy on Chinese medicine safety, including raising the standard of toxin limit and expanding the screening scope to all Chinese medicine. Our government has endeavored to secure the safety of Chinese medicine use, however, facing difficulties and challenges.
Challenges in securing safety of Chinese herbal medicines
To ensure safe use of Chinese medicines, monitoring and detecting heavy metals and toxins in Chinese herbal medicines become critically important. Nevertheless, this task is especially tough for the Taiwan government for two reasons.
1. High cost of detection technology
Although there are a few methods (for example: ICP-MS) to detect these harmful substances (Yuan et al, 2010), most of the procedures rely on abundant laboratory works and expensive equipment. Accordingly, heavy metal detections often turn out to become expensive, time consuming, and unreachable to most people. (Ernst & Coon, 2001).
2. Scope and scale of monitoring
Because of limitation in geography, climate, and environment, Taiwan’s demand for Chinese herb medicine mainly relies on importation. Without inter-country collaboration, the quality of Chinese herb medicine depends on the regulation and polices of origin countries. Our GMP regulation on manufacturing Chinese medicine can’t be applied to these foreign producers of Chinese herb medicine. Thus, there is no way for our government regulate and secure the foreign source of Chinese herb medicine.
In inspection, the government can only randomly inspect Chinese herb medicine at imports and in the markets. How effective this policy can assure the safety of Chinese herb medicines depends on the sampling scheme which can effectively identify Chinese herb medicine of poor quality. However, mycotoxin can be produced in any condition, not limit to markets. It could be restaurant and households, whenever the environment is humid and warm.
Figure 3. Difficulties in Monitoring the Safety of Chinese Herb Medicine
Thus, it is necessary for us to come up with new ideas to overcome the current situation. There are three aspects to solve this problem: financial support, labor, and detection method. While the first two acquires political implements, which may go through a whole lot of rigmarole; our goal is to improve the third option, detection method.
To help the public stop taking the toxin-containing Chinese herbal medicines, we decide to combine science and social science strategies. By applying synthetic biology technology, we create some “Shen-Nong” E coli which are able to detect heavy metal and toxin in Chinese medicines. Meanwhile, we initiate multi-factual outreach approach to advocate safety issues of Chinese medicines and bio-technology, as well as promote our bio-kit products to the public, experts, and scientists.
This year, we chose circuits that can detect copper, lead, arsenic, mercury, and aflatoxin, which were in 2015 claimed to be in the top list of most harmful substances in Chinese medicine. Aside from just detecting, we want to measure in quantities. Thus, we designed a self-regulated circuit. This circuit can regulate itself so that it will produce a controlled amount of fluorescence protein varied by the concentration of toxin. This way, we hope that our device can measure with more precision and accuracy.
Our product has the advantage of portable, economical, rapid scanning, and user-friendly. Compared to the current technology of detecting toxin in Chinese Medicine, we believe that our product can be more reachable to people. Furthermore, we highly regard the importance of bio safety. Thus, we have designed a mechanism with Chinese Medicine itself to prevent bacteria from spreading into the wild.
We held a science fair in our school, allowing other high school students to come. We discussed about our project and taught them some fundamental concepts of synthetic biology. Likewise, we had the opportunity to meet with Kyuyo Senior High from Okinawa, Japan. We exchanged ideas with one another and discussed our project with them, receiving precious feedbacks from our peers. In addition, we want to spread the idea of synthetic biology to more people, even those who we cannot meet. Hence, we published our project on Newton Science Magazine and Science Study Monthly Journal, hoping that people from a walks of life can conceive our perspective.
In the iGEMer community, we attended the Asia Pacific conference to team up with different teams across Asia. We shared what we have done so far and the problems we have in our hands. We participated in lessons about biology marketing, where basically we learned the capability of marketing and promotion of bio products. Furthermore, we convened separated conferences with National Tsing Hua University and National Yang Min University iGEM team.
We consulted experts in synthetic biology, professors in traditional Chinese medicine, and NGO to learn more details in Chinese medicine and bio detecting. We visited the biggest Chinese medicine manufacturer in Taiwan to learn the process and challenges of making Chinese Medicine. We also went to several government organizations, including the Department of Chinese Medicine and Pharmacy, the Ministry of Health and Welfare; Food and Drug Administration; Overseas Community Affairs Council of Taiwan; and a legislator in person. From these visits, we interviewed the stakeholders with questions about Chinese Medicine toxin detecting, challenges they face when executing the law, and whether they agree using a bio kit to detect Chinese medicine across the open market. The results were fruitful and we gained a lot of praise and support for designing a device that may help the detection of Chinese medicine in the future.
We conducted media analysis to explore how biosynethic news pressed in four main newspapers in Taiwan. We looked up magazines, newspaper, and literatures on synthetic biology. We find that Taiwanese like to learn new stuff and are eager to try out the newest technology. Besides, we analyzed three waves of NHIS health surveys to gain a better knowledge about Taiwan citizens’ Chinese medicine useage and related regulation behind.
By only the current method of detection, sending specimen to the government is not enough. We want to raise people’s awareness and join in the ‘watchdog program’, that is, to educate the population and have them detect the materials around them. Hence, we want to provide a cheaper, efficient, and user-friendly device. We hope that we could incite a campaign where everyone can take part in preserving our precious culture and create a brighter future together. Our user-friendly bio-kit products are developed to detect heavy metal or toxin in compound materials. Currently, these bio-kit products are used to screen toxic substances in Chinese herbal medicines.
Figure 4. Our bio-kit product design
In the future, we expect our bio-kit can be modified and used in detecting heavy metal or toxin in other daily products, such as lead poisoning in makeup and cosmetic products. In hope, the public can take the advantages of these bio-kit products to detect harmful toxin contaminations at an early stage, and empower people to become a watchdog of the Chinese culture and global health.
Ernst, E., & Coon, J. T. (2001). Heavy metals in traditional Chinese medicines: A systematic review. Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 70(6), 497-504.
Yuan, X., Chapman, R. L., & Wu, Z. (2010). Analytical methods for heavy metals in herbal medicines. Phytochemical Analysis, 22, 189-198.