Prompted by the rising prevalence of antibiotic resistant pathogens (superbugs) very exciting and innovative approach to understanding and treating infectious disease is being explored at the highest levels of science and medicine. I can't help but be a little amused though, as this "new" and "revolutionary" idea turns out to be old hat in Chinese Medicine. It's as if biomedical researchers opened up the first chapter of a textbook in Chinese Medicine 101 for insight and inspiration.
You can read about this exciting breakthrough in thinking here:
This article discusses a paradigm shift in the treatment of infectious disease, in which the current model - which focuses exclusively on killing a pathogen - grows to encompass ideas about host resistance and tolerance. This is essentially the idea of shifting focus from working against the pathogen to working with the body. This is actually reminiscent not only of ancient medical systems such as Chinese Medicine, but also of early debates in what we call Western Medicine, between Louis Pasteur (known as the father of germ theory) and Antoine Beauchamp (who believed it was a problem in terrain that was the primary cause of disease, rather than the existence of a pathogen - “The primary cause of disease is in us, always in us.”).
In this article, we follow an inspiring and very likable protagonist. Janelle Ayres - a quirky, unconventional and clearly gifted scientist - "... understands bacteria deeply. She respects them and even loves them. And she knows they will always win."
Dr. Ayres argues that: "Society needs drugs that don’t target bacteria, which can so quickly evolve to evade our best medicines". "Instead, she thinks we can harness those bacteria — even the ones normally classified as pathogens — to make new drugs that save lives by targeting an infected person’s tissues and organs. That would be an entirely new class of therapeutics, which could lessen our dependence on antibiotics and help save lives in cases, like her father’s, where antibiotics fail."
There is resistance to her idea from mainstream immunologists. This is not surprising, as their entire zeitgeist hinges on Pasteur's idea that pathogens are inherently bad and we must protect ourselves from them with medicines that target and kill them. But there are others, at the highest levels of biomedical research, who recognize the value in her approach.
Ruslan Medzhitov, who "has scooped up nearly every recent major prize for biology..." [so clearly a bright guy at the top of his field], "had been frustrated for years by a finding he could not explain. In experiment after experiment, he noted that infected animals differed wildly in their survival rates — and it didn’t seem to matter how many pathogens or disease-causing microbes they carried. If killing microbes was all that mattered, he said, this differential survival of infected animals made no sense at all.
“All the standard thinking about how the immune system works,” he said, “was clearly inefficient.”"
Biomedical treatment of infectious disease - ever since Louis Pasteur - has focused only of the pathogen (xie qi). From a Chinese Medical point of view, that's an extremely limited approach. In some ways, first semester students of Chinese Medicine are exposed to a view of the world, of health and disease that is more nuanced. They learn that there are disease agents that arise from the exterior or from the interior, but also that there is a whole physiological system that stands in opposition to disease, which can be promoted to maintain harmony with our environment and restore health and homeostasis when it is compromised.
Janelle Ayres wants to broaden or even shift the focus of medicine so that it recognizes the unique characteristics that make some people more resistant (and thus likely to tolerate and survive) certain disease agents than other. Essentially, she wants to study and treat the person. This has literally been the driving philosophy of Chinese Medicine since at least the Han Dynasty (2,000 yrs ago). Dr. Ayres desire to focus on and treat the organs and tissues is the same approach that forms the basis Chinese Medical practice to this day. The 21st century revolutionary idea is that there is an innate state of health and resilience (known as Zheng Qi or Righteous Qi) as well as pathogenic agents which may harm us if we are incapable of being in balance with them (Xie Qi or Evil Qi). This mind blowing idea happens to be TCM 101. It also would have appeared in Western Medicine 150 years ago if Louis Pasteur's influence had not so thoroughly overshadowed that of Antoine Bechamp.
Regarding the ability of the body to be resilient to disease agents because of a state of internal health and balance, here is an excerpt from the Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic (a foundational text of Chinese Medicine, from roughly 2,000 yrs ago):
"When yin and yang are balanced, the five zang organs function appropriately together; the tendons, ligaments, vessels, channels, and collaterals all flow smoothly; the muscles, bones, and marrow are abundant and strong, qi and blood follow the right path, internal and external are synergetic, vision in clear, and hearing is acute. Thus the Zhen/True Qi becomes unshakable, and the pathogens cannot invade". (Huangdi Neijing Suwen, Mao Xing Ni's translation)
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