I grew up in a family with several physicians, and I always thought that if anyone was going to conquer chronic diseases, it would be Western doctors, or at least doctors practicing in the Western tradition. However, after writing two books about kids’ allergies with two pediatric allergists, one of them my cousin, Dr. Paul Ehrlich, and editing a website on the same subject, suddenly I was not so sure.
My almost daily study of the medical literature, along with conversations with researchers and, above all, with the anguished parents of children with severe allergic diseases, has surprised me for the lack of progress in more than 100 years. A couple of years ago, an Ivy League immunologist put this into perspective for me when he challenged an audience of hundreds of allergists to name one real breakthrough in asthma treatment since inhaled corticosteroids were introduced 40 years before. Not one hand was raised.
That picture began to change for me when I met Dr. Xiu-Min Li at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. I visited her office on the recommendation of my cousin. He is not normally inclined toward alternative treatments. In fact, our books and website deal forthrightly with guideline medicine. Paul said he had heard Dr. Li speak and, because she was working in one of the world’s top allergy-research institutions, thought it was worth trying to get her to contribute to our site.
As a lifelong reader of the New York Times, my first acquaintance with traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) came in 1971, when the eminent columnist James Reston wrote about his emergency appendectomy while covering Henry Kissinger’s visit to China. The diagnosis and surgery were accomplished by a combination of TCM and Western medicine; however, his considerable postoperative pain was relieved by acupuncture. Reading it again 41 years later, I was impressed by how vibrant TCM was both as an academic and a practical field back then. My own association with TCM was confined to the jars of dried vegetables on shelves in Chinatown stores. The idea of treating allergies with TCM sounded like rebuilding New York’s subways with plans for the Pyramids.
I spent two years working on a book about Dr. Li’s work, Food Allergies: Traditional Chinese Medicine, Western Science, and the Search for a Cure. The cover image of Yin and Yang sums up the contributions of both. On one side we have the Yin -- TCM -- which has produced herb-based medicine with powerful mitigating and curative effects. Dr. Li’s Food Allergy Herbal Formula-2 is based on a “classical” treatment for intestinal parasites. But laboratory science is the Yang, which shows how that medicine can retrain the immune system to not be allergic anymore. The person who made this happen is Dr. Li, whom I call the Rosetta Stone of medicine for being able to make this leap. The drug is now the most advanced investigational alternative drug in the history of the National Institutes of Health.
Dr. Li’s Mount Sinai colleague Scott Sicherer, MD, points out that the Western model is to test one molecule’s effects on one other molecule, whereas in TCM we can study how multiple molecules can affect multiple other ones. Thus, we may be entering a new era of medical research based on Chinese medicine. Already, these herbs have spawned research into asthma, environmental allergies, Crohn’s disease, organ transplantation, and even cancer.
Is this a revolution in medicine? I hope so, and I have had the good luck and privilege to tell this story.
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