Saturday, March 29, 2008

Doping in Traditional Chinese Medicine

One of the biggest advantages of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), its supporters argue, is that the medications are made from natural materials such as herbs or animal parts and are therefore safe, without the side-effects of most modern medications.

But the effectiveness of TCM has never been scientifically established. So much so that even the manufacturers of TCM are not confident in their usefulness. Therefore, it has become a common practice to add components of modern medicine into traditional prescriptions and still sell them as TCM medicines. These components, and their side-effects, are rarely disclosed and the drugs are continued to be sold over the counter, even for the consumption of infants.

There had been media reports in the past that TCM medicines exported from China were found of containing components that do not belong in TCM.

As the Beijing Olympics approaches, authorities in China began to worry about potential doping scandals. In mid-March, the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA) circulated a list of TCM medicines that are known to contain stimulates or dopes. It advised the manufacturers of these drugs that they should have included an "Athletes Caution" label so that athletes would not be using these and be found guilty of doping.

The list was quite an eye-opener. It was first reported in New Threads on March 22, by Zhang Jiawei, who pointed out that over 500 TCM medicines have been found to contain prasterone or DHEA, a steroid hormone.

In all, 1,227 TCM medicines were identified to have stimulates of some kind. Fang Zhouzi pointed out that, while some of them existed naturally in herbs, others, such as prasterone (普拉雄酮), hydrochlorothiazide(氢氯噻嗪), clenbuterol (克仑特罗), could not have come from natural components but have to be intentionally added during the manufacturing process.

While these TCM, or fake TCM if you will, use doped modern medicine components to enhance their effectiveness, they are actually sold with a higher price than the corresponding non-TCM pills, which are of higher quality and better understood side-effects. Consumers who had bought these TCM medicines over the counter are unlikely to be aware of these additives and their purported effects and side-effects.

Much worse, among the 533 TCM that contains prasterone, many of them are intended for the use of babies and infants. It's a mystery why prasterone has to be added for baby medicines, but their existence will certainly harm the natural growth process of these little patients.

It seems so far that the SFDA is too pre-occupied with making sure the nation's athletes are aware of the danger of doing in these TCM medicines to taking any necessary actions in safe-guarding the health of the general public.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Fang Zhouzi and OSAIC Launches a Book Donation Drive

Fang Zhouzi's popular science books have been selling well in China. One book in particular, Achieving Health Scientifically (科学成就健康), is a best seller. The book is a treatise of modern and scientific knowledge in every day life, including medicine, nutrition, and life styles. It also rebuttals many common misconceptions and disinformation in these areas, most of them originated from the ill-conceived beliefs of the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).

In particular, the book provides a laundry list of known side-effects of many popular TCM medicines. The medicines are openly sold over the counter in China and abroad, often without any mention of their (sometimes deadly) side-effects.

The book is very well received in China. Many young people have bought extra copies for their parents and elder relatives in the hope that they could be persuaded by a more scientific view of health.

Now, Fang Zhouzi and his publisher has decided to donate about 5,000 copies of this book to local libraries and organizations. They will provide the books for free and the publisher in China will also provide the manpower needed in processing the books with no charge.

All they needed is funding to provide the shipping expense. For this purpose, the Organization of Scientific and Academic Integrity in China (OSAIC) has launched a book donation drive to raise the fund. The shipping cost is estimated to be $1 USD per book. It does not take much, but could have a huge impact. (Most of the instructions are in Chinese, but you can also easily understand the donation instructions in English.)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Buck's Retraction and Zou's Rebuttal

The high-profile retraction of a published paper by Nobel Prize winner Linda Buck has been widely reported in mainstream media. The retraction contains a paragraph outlining Author Contributions to the original paper, which appears to be pointing a finger to one of the co-principal authors. Without explicitly accusing forgery, it says that the said author Zou Zhihua (邹志华) had "prepared and analysed the mice and provided all figures and data for the paper". The authors now find that they "have been unable to reproduce the reported findings" and that there are "inconsistencies between some of the figures and the data published in the paper and the original data."

The news got much attention in Chinese media and community primarily because Zou Zihua is a Chinese and received college education in China. He had earned his Masters degree from the No. 1 Military Medicine University in GuangZhou, China, and then a Ph. D. from Osaka University School of Medicine in Japan. After that he joined Professor Buck's laboratory and performed the experiments now in dispute.

After the news broke out, Zou had maintained a public silence and declined all media interviews. However, he appeared to have entered a couple of comments himself on the Nature News site. In one of them, he was clearly resentful that he was being singled out as the sole responsible party. Despite the fact that he had also signed the retraction, he still stood by his data and figures:
Yes, I signed the retraction letter and hope every scientist who is aware of the problems with a paper will take similar actions immediately. However, I stand behind the conclusions of the paper and believe the experiments can be repeated. I am planning to do so. This will undoubtedly be daunting to a struggling junior faculty, and no one can guarantee success. I agree with the view that everyone who is on a publication should take full responsibility. Otherwise, stay in the acknowledgment.
Meanwhile, having totally lost her confidence in Zou's work, Professor Buck had asked for a review of two other publications in which Zou was also the lead author.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A Combinatorial Interpretation of TCM's Emperor Court Hiearchy

Dr. Chen Zhu (陈竺) is not only an outstanding biologist and researcher in China, he is also the head of the Ministry of Health in the government. He is also well known as a strong believer and advocate of the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). As a scientist and health official, he has frequently spoken out the importance of TCM as a cultural heritage as well as useful means for curing diseases and improving health. With his position, he is working on providing more and more fundings into the TCM.

He is also active in using the modern biological research tools, particularly the systems biology, to prove the philosophy and methodology in TCM. His latest result is causing a mini wave in the Chinese media.

In a paper just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA), Dr. Chen and his coworkers (including his wife Chen Saijuan), described their dissection of mechanisms of a TCM formula as an effective treatment for promyelocytic leukemia.

The TCM formula, or the medicine Compound Huangdai Tablets (复方黄黛片), has been available and in active medical use in China for many years. There are a few earlier researches testifying its effectiveness in treating leukemia, but none of them appear to meet the rigorous standard of drug testing. Chen's new paper provided more evidence of the drug's effect at cell level.

But Chen et al. also go further. They dissected the compound medicine into three major active ingredients and claimed that they acted in combinatorial synergy in treatment. That is, one ingredient could not do the job as effectively without the presence of the others.

Still, there is nothing terribly new here.

But when the news of this paper's publication is reported in China, it took an entirely different tone. China Daily, in its English report, was quite modest in claiming that "TCM applauded for leukemia treatment". Other media went much further. Based on a press release from Chen's institute itself, the news was widely reported as PNAS's recognition of TCM itself. Chen's research, the reports said, not only shown the effectiveness of one drug, but also proved the ancient TCM philosophy of how to construct a compound drug: 君臣佐使.

Simply put, this philosophy models four components or roles in a compound drug as a court of an emperor. The emperor (君) serves as the principle in attacking the disease; the minister (臣) acts as assisting and augmenting the principle; the assistant (佐) also assists the principle and counter-reacts any possible side-effects of the principle; the servants (使) acts to deliver the medicine where it should go.

Such terms did not exist in Chen's paper itself, although the paper emphasizes on the combinatorial synergy of the components it identified. However, a diagram in the press release displays their belief that their research indeed is based on and provides evidence of this ancient philosophy:

Interestingly enough though, they only had three components so the two cohorts, the ministers and the assistants, have to double-duty as delivering servants as well.

The press release and news report also contains many descriptions of the "Yin" and "Yang" of the components, which did not exist in the research paper itself, just as the above diagram.

Fang Zhouzi criticizes these news report as another example of distortion to fit its own agenda of advocating TCM. Also, due to Dr. Chen is a member of PNAS' editorial board and PNAS' archaic policy, Fang questions whether this paper has been properly peer-reviewed.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Xu Liangying Awarded 2008 APS Sakharov Prize

The American Physical Society has awarded its 2008 Andrei Sakharov Prize to Xu Liangying (许良英) of Chinese Academy of Sciences, "For a lifetime’s advocacy of truth, democracy and human rights -- despite surveillance and house arrest, harassment and threats, even banishment -- through his writings, and publicly speaking his mind."

In China, Xu Liangying is perhaps best known for his translations of Einstein's Works which were published in late 1970s. In an article published a couple of years ago, Fang Zhouzi fondly recalled his meeting with Xu in Beijing. Fang credited Xu's translation as one of the most influential in his pursuit of science in his youth.

Xu Liangying is also a well-spoken scientists who had got into serious trouble with the government many times. The New York Times had profiled him as Einstein's Man in Beijing: Rebel With a Cause.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Beijing Olympics Steals Games

Well, not the Games.

The official Beijing Olympic web site is being accused of stealing fun Flash games. According to the author of the original game, who emphatically stated that "The Olympics stole my game":

They downloaded the swf file from my site, decompiled it, swapped out the little guy for the Fuwa characters, took my name off of it and republished it as their own. I can tell this is what happened because they are still using some of my original art from Snow Day (the clouds and the ice cube are exactly the same). I also took the liberty of decompiling their game and actually found it still contains the sound files from Snow Day, even though they aren’t being used in the Olympic version. It even still has the splash sound effect from The Lake (I used the engine from The Lake to make Snow Day and must have forgot to delete this file).

Two of the other games on the Olympic site are obvious rip-offs of Ferry Halim’s Orisinal games. Compare Obstacle Race on the Olympic site with Ferry’s adorable Arctic Blue, and Leap and Leap, a clumsy copy of Winter Bells. I can’t really tell if these are clones or reskinned versions of Ferry’s files, but those stars in Leap and Leap look pretty damn similar to me.

The author is sending cease and desist letters to Sohu, which created the site for Beijing Olympics, and the organization committee.

OSAIC Reports on Donations to Fang Zhouzi's Court Cases

Back near the end of 2006, things were looking rather bleak for Fang Zhouzi. He had just lost three court cases brought by people he had exposed as fraud. Each case imposed steep penalty in damage payouts. Although he had vowed, and has been continuing, to defy the court orders and refuse paying any fines during appeals, he also faced mounting legal fees that he could not avoid.

It was at that time, the Organization for Scientific & Academic Integrity in China (OSAIC) was formed in the United States to provide financial backings for his and other similar endeavor. Registered in the State of Florida as a not-for-profit organization, OSAID's Bylaw states that her purpose is to provide "financial support for efforts in the exposure of and legal actions against scientific and academic frauds, as well as promotion of general scientific knowledge in China."

After more than a year, OSAIC had just released it's first annual report. As of November 5, 2007, OSAIC had collected donations in the amount of $30,449.61. Pretty much all the donations came through the internet, by the community who had followed closely the New Threads web site.

In the past year, OSAIC also provided funds of $4,842.58 for Fang Zhouzi and his lawyer to defend the libel and defamation cases in China. Also, it provided another $11,200.00 for the defense of Xiao Chuangguo's case filed in New York.

OSAIC is also in the process of securing the 501c(3) tax exemption status. However, so far it has been tied up in IRS paperwork.

You can visit this donation page (in Chinese) to make a donation to OSAIC.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Potty-Mouth Professor Ends His Diatribe

Ji Guangmao (季广茂) is a Professor of Chinese at Beijing Normal University (北师大). Like any other professor, he publishes articles and books and writes a blog on his research and life. But for the past three months or so, he suddenly became very famous for reasons unlike any other.

It was in the November of 2007, the Literature & Art Studies (文艺批评) journal published a review article that was highly critical to one of Ji's books.

The criticism must have stricken a chord in Ji's heart. In an immediate response, Professor Ji published a provoking article in his blog on December 5. He characterized the review article as a vicious attack and the author a "beast" (畜生), an extremely degradative term in Chinese. What's more, he declared that he would become a beast himself, so that he could fight against the attacker at the same level!

And he was not kidding. From that day forward, he published numerous articles in his blog attacking the author of the review article, filled with juvenile dirty words. His behavior was so shocking and bizarre, he became known as the "A-hole Professor" on the internet.

It last for more than 80 days. On February 25, however, Professor Ji apparently came back to his senses. He deleted most of the offending articles from his blog and apologized for his behavior, which in his own words had tarnished the image of his profession and school. His school and department expressed relief. There was no word on any penalties he may face.