Merging metabolomics with traditional Chinese medicine
30 Apr 2021
This story is part of a series about the Talent100+ initiative.
A plethora of chemical reactions take place in our bodies every second, with the resulting interactions producing small molecules known as metabolites. These biochemical by-products have various functions, as they are involved in signalling as well as the regulation of enzymes, and they are crucial to the health and proper functioning of the human body. Learning more about metabolites could help scientists better understand metabolic mechanisms and lead to the development of new therapies and biomarkers.
This is the goal of Professor Jia Wei, Cheung On Tak Endowed Professor in Chinese Medicine of the School of Chinese Medicine and Director of the School's Hong Kong Traditional Chinese Medicine Phenome Research Centre. He has been carrying out research in the rapidly emerging field of metabolomics, the study of all the metabolites in the human body, with a focus on finding new solutions to global health problems, including diabetes, gastrointestinal diseases and metabolic disorders.
A holistic perspective of the biological system
In 2003, Professor Jia's laboratory was one of the first in the world to conduct research on metabolomics, a relatively new scientific tool in omics sciences. What piqued his interest in the field was actually his work in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) at the time.
"Traditional Chinese medicine is a complex medical system. Practitioners have to collect all kinds of information about the client by using different diagnostic methods. Then they formulate the pattern of an illness and decide on the treatment," he says. An important aspect of the modernisation of TCM, he believes, is the adoption of scientific approaches which share a similar concept of holism. This belief brought his attention to the study of metabolomics, which measures the dynamic changes of a person's whole set of metabolites in response to shifts in their physiological condition and the environment.
According to Professor Jia, the approach of metabolomics bears a striking resemblance to that of TCM. "Both fields emphasise holism and dynamic changes when looking at diseases and human health. By looking at omics data, we can identify the pattern of an illness, and this pattern may be closely related to the one derived from traditional Chinese medicine," he says.
Scientific discoveries inspired by traditional Chinese medicine
A key research focus of Professor Jia's team is host-gut microbe metabolic interactions. Published in the international scientific journals Cell Metabolism and Nature Communications, their recent research findings have revealed that hyocholic acid and its derivatives (collectively known as HCAs), a component of bile acids that facilitate the digestion of fat, are a promising risk indicator of type 2 diabetes.
Through a series of tests, the researchers found that the blood glucose levels in fasting pigs are significantly lower than that of humans and mice. As HCAs constitute nearly 80% of bile acids in pigs, the results indicated the potential role of HCAs in maintaining stable glucose levels. This may explain why pigs, unlike humans, seldom suffer from diabetes despite their low physical activity levels and consumption of a calorie-rich diet. Interestingly, the work was inspired by an observation made several hundred years ago in China.
"The traditional Chinese medical book Compendium of Materia Medica recorded the use of pig bile to treat excessive thirst, a condition which is associated with diabetes today," says Professor Jia. "It is our interest and responsibility as scientists to find out why this treatment was effective, and what we can learn from it."
He has also used a metabolomics approach to carry out pioneering tea research. In a study published in Nature Communications, his team validated the effectiveness of Pu-erh tea in lowering cholesterol and lipid levels. They discovered that the most abundant pigment in Pu-erh tea, theabrownin, can improve people's blood lipid profiles and restore the optimal functioning of lipid metabolism through the modulation of microbes that live in our gut. The findings linked Pu-erh tea to gut microbiota and bile acid metabolism for the first time.
Advancing traditional Chinese medicine through modern science
With almost 30 years of experience as a scientist in the medical field, Professor Jia has established a number of research centres in the US and mainland China, including translational research centres, clinical-omics platforms and botanical-based drug development laboratories. Prior to joining HKBU, he was a tenured professor at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa and Associate Director of the University of Hawaii Cancer Center, a National Cancer Institute designated cancer research centre.
He believes that the interdisciplinary research opportunities at HKBU play an instrumental role in advancing TCM and translational research. "Research in traditional Chinese medicine has to be conducted across many disciplines. We have to make use of modern scientific tools to study such a complex medical system and come up with new ideas," he says. In this regard, the techniques from metabolomics could potentially simplify the clinical assessment aspects of TCM with enhanced diagnostic accuracy.
He also welcomes the collaborative research culture of the University. "I like to work with people with different scientific backgrounds, and I believe that when scientists from different disciplines work closely together, it presents great opportunities for research and academic advancement," he says.