Science in Society Archive

Yes! to Organic Medicine

The failure of conventional medicine based on the obsolete mechanistic model has prompted the search for better sciences for life, and the revival of an ancient paradigm of holistic theory of health and organic medicine. Dr. Omboon Vallisuta

Failure of 'Conventional' Western medicine and its mechanistic paradigm

The US spent $2.2 trillion on healthcare in 2007; averaging $7 421 per person, 16.2 percent of GDP, and nearly twice the average of other developed nations. Yet this most advanced and costly medical system in the world is the leading cause of death and injury to its citizens. Each year, some 2.2 million suffer from adverse drug reaction, 7.5 million undergo unnecessary medical and surgical procedures, and 8.9 million are unnecessarily hospitalised. In 2001, the medical system killed 783 936, when 699 697 died from heart disease and 553 251 from cancer. People around the world are looking for other ways to deliver healthcare [1] (Medicine in a new key, SiS 43) or reorganizational healing [2, 3].

Fritjof Capra had foreseen the problems created by reductionism 30 years ago in The Turning Point [4], where he warned of the wrong mechanistic Cartesian paradigm being used for medicine, although physicists themselves have gone beyond it. Unfortunately, this is still true to-day.

Capra pointed out that all scientific theories are approximations to the true nature of reality; and that each theory is valid for a certain range of phenomena. New theories would have to be found to replace the old one, or, rather, to extend it by improving the approximation.

Although Descartes' simple mechanistic biology could not be carried very far, and had to be modified considerably during the subsequent three hundred years, what lies at the basis of most contemporary biological thinking is still the belief that all aspects of living organisms can be understood by reducing them to their smallest constituents and studying the mechanisms through which these interact.

The reductionist view of disease eclipsed an alternative theory that had been taught a few decades earlier by Claude Bernard, a celebrated French physician generally considered the founder of modern physiology [4]. Bernard's emphasis on internal balance as a condition for health could not hold its ground against the rapid rise of the reductionist view of disease among biologists and physicians. The importance of his theory was rediscovered only in the twentieth century, when researchers became more aware of the crucial role of the environment in biological phenomena. Bernard's concept of the constancy of the internal environment has been further elaborated in the important notion of homeostasis, a word coined by the American physiologist Walter Cannon to denote the tendency of living organisms to maintain a state of internal balance.

In the twentieth century a significant shift occurred in biological research that may well turn out to be the final stage in the reductionist approach to the phenomena of life, leading to its greatest triumph and, at the same time, to its end. Whereas cells were regarded as the basic building blocks of living organisms during the nineteenth century, the attention shifted from cells to molecules toward the middle of the twentieth century, when geneticists began to explore the molecular structure of the gene. Their research culminated in the elucidation of the physical structure of DNA, the molecular basis of chromosomes, and the cracking of the genetic code, which stand among the greatest achievements of twentieth-century science [4].

The spectacular success of molecular biology in the field of genetics led scientists to apply its methods to all areas of biology in an attempt to solve all problems by reducing them to their molecular level. Thus most biologists became fervent reductionists, concerned with molecular details. Molecular biology, originally a small branch of the life sciences, has become a pervasive and exclusive way of thinking that has led to a severe distortion of biological research. As Sidney Brenner, one of the leading researchers in molecular genetics, said then, "Nobody publishes theory in biology - with few exceptions. Instead, they get out the structure of still another protein [4].

As American philosopher Paul Weiss said: "there is no phenomenon in a living system that is not molecular, but there is none that is only molecular either". This will require a much broader conceptual framework than the one biology uses today.

How, then, is this situation going to change? Capra believed that the change will come through medicine. The functions of a living organism that do not lend themselves to a reductionist description - those representing the organism's integrative activities and its interactions with the environment - are precisely the functions that are crucial for the organism's health. Because Western medicine has adopted the reductionist approach of modern biology, adhering to the Cartesian division and neglecting to treat the patient as a whole person, physicians now find themselves unable to understand, or to cure, many of today's major illnesses. There is a growing awareness among them that many of the problems our medical system faces stem from the reductionist model of the human organism on which it is based. This is recognized not only by physicians but also, and even more so, by nurses and other health professionals, and the public at large. There is already considerable pressure on physicians to go beyond the narrow, mechanistic framework of contemporary medicine and develop a broader, holistic approach to health.

More recently, Mae-Wan Ho concluded that "decades of sequencing and dissecting the human genome in the hope of identifying genes for diseases have only served to confirm that the real causes of ill health are environmental and social" [5] (From Genomics to Epigenomics , SiS 41). Further, "It is not the genetic messages encoded in genomic DNA, but environmentally induced epigenetic modifications that overwhelmingly determine people's health and well-being. Early nutrition and parental care play a large role in an individual's physical and mental health and due attention must be paid to those aspects in delivering primary healthcare" [6] (Caring Mothers Strike Fatal Blow against Genetic Determinism , SiS 41).

Another overriding reason for change is the escalating costs of conventional drugs and drug development.

The time frame and costs for development of a new drug [8-10]

The discovery of new drug based on the mechanistic reductionist model takes 12-26 years and billions of dollars, starting from preclinical studies, which cover the period of screening for active molecules, whether from living organism or from chemical synthesis. The success rate of finding molecules with some biological activities in the laboratories is 1 in 10 000 and the chance that it shows no toxicity in animal tests is 1 in 1 000.

The clinical studies, which follow the preclinical, are done according to the Declaration of Helsinki and come in 4 phases. Phase I provides information that the drug is safe. The drug is given to 20-80 healthy volunteers under informed consent, and the success rate is about 70 percent. Phase II provides information that the drug is safe and effective. The drug is given to 100-300 patients under informed consent; and the success rate is about 47 percent. Phase III provides information of long term safety and efficacy; the drug is given to a 1 000-3 000 patients under informed consent and the success rate is about 82 percent. All adverse effects are noted. Having passed all 3 phases, the drug can be registered, with a success rate of 74 percent, and only 30 percent of the registered drugs would get good sales. Phase IV studies take place after the drug has entered the market, on specific pharmacological effects, new clinical indication or side effects. As a result, the drug could be withdrawn as was the case with thalidomide, which caused abnormalities in newborn babies.

These complex and costly processes ensure that only big drug companies are able to develop drugs for the market; and are the main reasons for 25 years of drug monopoly and the escalating cost of medicine.

Scientists working in the area of drug discovery agree on the desperate need to turn to nature as a source of novel active agents for elaboration into efficacious drugs for a multitude of disease [11]; particularly so as twenty-five years of the much touted combinatorial chemistry technology has yielded only one approved drug [12].

My own feeling is that we have a lot to learn from successful doctors working from an integrative paradigm, and I shall describe the work of one whom I know well as a colleague in the Department of Pharmacognosy, Faculty of Pharmacy, Mahidol University. Initially, I had made acquaintance with him as his patient in 2006 and afterwards he told me that he would like to give his findings to Mahidol University and asked me to open the curriculum for him to teach.

The integrative practice of Dr. Suraphan Sirithamwanich

Using a combination of scientific knowledge offered by modern medicine and holistic knowledge in eastern medicine, Dr. Suraphan Sirithamwanich shows it is possible to eradicate a wide range of diseases, even those deemed "incurable" by modern medicine, and restore the patients to normal health. As detailed records have not been kept until recently, he can only give the approximate number of cases of different diseases successfully treated in 50 years of practice (see Table 1).

Table 1 Approximate record of diseases treated by Dr. Suraphan Sirithamwanich

DiseaseNumber of cases
Cysts & Cancers*1 000
Systemic lupus erythmatosus200
Kidney failure100
Peptic/duodenal ulcer500
Herpes simplex & Herpes zoster500
Chronic tonsillitis500
Allergic rhinitis & allergic dermatitis800
Dry eye100
Abnormal red blood cell50
Muscle weakness20
Viral hepatitis300
Chronic inflammation of nerve endings20
Nervous disease & insomnia500
Coronary diseases20
Urinary diseases300
Prostrate hypertrophy100
Thyroid disease50
Back pain1 000
*Include leukemia, skin cancer, cancer of internal organs, lymphoma

Obviously, successful treatment depends on the patient being able to swallow, and to complete the course of herbal medicine prescribed, which though much cheaper than conventional medicine, are still pricey. His outstanding success depends on his ability to translate the pathology as diagnosed by western medicine diagnosis into the eastern paradigm of diseases and formulation of herbal medicine based on holistic eastern physiology of the human body.

Suraphan began his independent studies in medicine from the early age of 15, with the aim of finding a cure for his mother, who was diagnosed with an incurable psychosomatic disease. At that time, the Director of Rajburi Hospital, a Western-trained doctor, had urged him to seek help from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), as there was no cure in western medicine for his mother. He was also Suraphan's mentor in the education of Western medicine. That was how he started some 60 years ago to study both paradigms of healing simultaneously, and this is still the basis of his present practice.

He had the chance to study ancient Chinese characters from the Chinese doctors who fled from mainland China, who also taught him the art of pulse reading and TCM formulation. He studied Traditional Thai Medicine and Ayurvedic Medicine together with Buddhism. Practising meditation at the high level had helped him to understand the complicated theory of Eastern medicine. A number of monks and herbal collectors were also his teachers. He had followed their journeys into various jungles of Thailand to taste and collect the right herbs. The success in finding the medicine to cure his mother's condition was the inspiration for him to continue his studies. He created 30 herbal formulas composed of 30-90 medicinal plants from China and Thailand, and gave different combinations of the formulae for each patient.

The Asian paradigm of human physiology and Buddhism are the foundation of the healing arts. But scientific technology and information are very importance for correct diagnosis and for following up the progress of treatment and the recovery in patients [7]. Furthermore, it would not cost that much time and money to invent a new drug, if one understands the Eastern paradigm of human physiology and knows how to formulate medicinal herbs.

Suraphan is especially proud of the fact that he saved the lives of those who had almost died from treatment with western medicine in the big University hospitals, especially cancer patients; also the fact that western doctors frequently perform surgical operation on patients, whereas he can invent the herbal formula that prevents the operation i.e. cure the patient without cutting the body.

The Eastern paradigm of human physiology

Suraphan has confirmed the benefits of ancient wisdom and proved to himself that the normal flow in Prana Jakra, lines of energy, are needed for the normal functions of human body. The daily completed cycle of the flows in these energy lines must be achieved to allow a person to live a healthy life. For example, a hepatic cancer patient with ascites (fluid filled spaces in the abdominal cavity) will prevent the flow of many energy lines and result in many ailments and symptoms. He proposes that these functions of energy lines may be explained by quantum theory.

Since ancient time, it was noted that in every square inch there is a Chakra (energy centre) where energy is conserved, generated and transferred to the next Chakra which form a network system over human body. There are 6 Olarn (Big) Chakras aligned more or less in the middle axis of human body which are involved in oriental medicine. The biggest one is at the navel where the baby is connected to its mother. These Olarn Chakras are bigger than the normal Chakras, therefore more energy are concentrated and transferred [7].

The energy in the forms of light, sound, colour and heat can be generated at these Chakras. The Moranayan Sutra (Death) Chapter of Thai Traditional Medicine Pharmacopoeia clearly notes the presence of energy inside the human body. It states that the internal sound is heard when external sounds are muted by putting the fingers into the ears. The book states that if one cannot hear any noise within his body (in Thai 'hoo dab' or dead ear) means that the person is going to die within seven days [13]. This signified that the internal sound is a sign of life that can be related to the Prana Chakra lines of energy. The body aura may be evidence of light and colour forms of energy. Heat energy is evident by the warmth of chakra areas and biological results obtained after applying the heat such as hot compress at the chakras along the lines of energy which improves the vitality of a person and even ease the musculoskeleton symptoms as practiced in Traditional Thai massage. The flow of energy can be felt by the person receiving a moxibustion treatment.

Figure 1 The Pran-chakra lines of energy and vitality [15]

As a scientist, I was reluctant to accept the presence of these energy lines until I experienced this flow of heat inside the lower leg from the foot to the knee after a set of moxa (a piece of fresh ginger with burnt herb on top) was placed at a point on the external side of the left foot. Within a few minutes there was a line of heat travelling inside the leg from the foot to the knee. It was then that I understood how the Prana Chakras lines of energy in the human body were successfully located and drawn, and all chakras were known thousands of years ago. Scientific explanation by Ho partly explains this phenomena i.e. she stated that quantum coherent organism works by intercommunication through water molecules aligned by connective tissues such as collagen and coherent energy is stored and available throughout the system [14] (Quantum Medicine: Organism as Polyphasic Liquid Crystalline Water, I-SIS Lecture).

Suraphan always says that "Eastern medicine is philosophy, it's not simple and straight forward like western medicine and sometimes you cannot describe that to a novice." What he gives them is just the road map.

Can herbs cure cancer?

There are many mechanisms that herbs can help in curing cancer. They can act as antioxidant, antimicrobial, antiproliferative, immunomodulator, anti-inflammatory, enzyme inhibitor, antimutagenic etc and most of all, herbs give nourishment to normal cells. These activities have already been proven for single plants [16-18]. Many natural product-derived drugs ranked among the top 35 worldwide selling ethical drugs in 2000, 2001, and 2002. There were 15 new natural product-derived drugs launched between 2000 and 2003, and 15 natural product-derived compounds were in Phase III clinical trials or registration at the end of 2003 [11].

Suraphan's view about the pathogenesis of cancer is that there is weakness in the body's energy system the Tridosha i.e. Pitta or homeostasis, Vata or metabolism and Kapha or anabolism which allows the accumulation of toxic substances or free radicals. As a result a cyst or tumour develops and later turns to cancer. The herbs are those recorded in the ancient books of Thai, Ayuravedic and Chinese Traditional medicine. Example of these herbs are Allium sativum, Aloe vera, Asparagus racemosa, Curcuma longa, Melia azedarach, Nigella sativa, Ocimum sanctum, Paederia foetida, Phyllanthus emblica, Plumbago zeylanica, Picrorhiza kurroa, Tinospora cordifolia, Terminalis chebula etc [7,13,16,17]. Suraphan says [7]:"The formulation is like a good English sentence, which is composed of many phrases."

I completely agree with Ho that [1] "A new 'organic medicine' could combine the best in non-invasive, non-destructive approaches from both traditional medical systems and contemporary science that would also revitalize indigenous medicines in all cultures and provide affordable healthcare for all. This project is all the more urgent in view of the increase in disease burden forecast for times of climate change."

It is essential, for the benefit of humanity, that doctors from the two systems must intercommunicate with respect and with the same aim i.e. to heal the patients, not to get rid of the disease, such as those attempts in cancer treatment. Another urgent matter is that many medicinal plants in the world are being lost by the lack of knowledge in their usefulness, and therefore no conservation is attempted [19].

It is now clear that the time has come for appropriate sciences to join forces for the survival of our species. The question is how to overcome the Domo system [1] that has occupied the world for so long and leaves no place for other systems to take a stand.

The author is head of Department of Pharmacognosy, Mahidol University, Bangkok, Thailand, and a member of the Faculty Committee in Ph. D. in Phytopharmaceutical Sciences Programme, M.Sc. and Ph.D. in Pharmaceutical Chemistry and Phytochemistry Programme, The Secretariat of Senate Subcommittee in Sciences and Technology of Thai Parliament


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