Symposium “Plants in Health and Culture”

     "Systems Biology: Bridging Traditional Chinese Medicine

and Western Pharmaceutical visions"

Dr. Mei Wang, Dr. Renger W. Witkamp and Prof. Dr. Jan van der Greef TNO Voeding & TNO Pharma e-mail:


Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is a holistic health care philosophy and has for 5000 years been focusing on a multi-factorial concept. However, it has lacked a molecular basis to explain effects on a pharmacological level, except in cases when a single bioactive constituent was studied. For TCM, the personalised practice of the practitioner and individualised treatments is a typical aspect. A second typical aspect is that it is comprised of a mixture of multiple drugs for treatment. Each herbal mixture has a polyvalent activity. The presence of the enormous number of different compounds, the variability of the composition of the compounds and the fact that synergism may occur, makes it very complex to find out which of these compounds are responsible for health effects in humans according to Western medical perspectives. The highly complicated features make it very difficulty to assay their pharmacological effects on a single cell line at a molecular level. Although individualised diagnosis and treatment in combination with a polyvalent action of medicine may not fit the present main stream of medicine today, demystification and providing scientific evidence behind the main aspects of TCM may lead to a breakthrough in modern health care.

Our philosophy differs from many other pharmaceutical institutes and companies that tend to follow the classical path of pharmacognosy. Instead we use the concept of Systems Biology to study TCM in accordance with its fundamental principles as being a personalised and holistic form of medicine. Our approach is based on measuring at the Systems level, the synergetic effects of multi-component mixtures provoking multi-dimensional response. TNO has developed this novel concept of Systems Biology and demonstrated its power in pharmaceutical and nutritional studies. It can be defined as the study of biology as an integrated system of genetic, protein, metabolite, cellular, and pathway events that are in flux and interdependent. The approach is based on the measurement of several biological levels in parallel (transcriptomics, proteomics and metabolomics) and the integration of all information by bioinformatics. Applying this concept we are able to measure small differences and effects at various levels (mRNA, protein and metabolite) in the human body when exposed to complex mixtures such as TCM and integrate this information to obtain knowledge on multi-pathway effects. This concept is based on a broad spectrum of knowledge/expertise ranging from plant physiology to clinical studies; this is referred to as the plant-to-patient (PTP ) approach. The concept of multi-dimensional pharmacology (MDPTh) is based on the Systems Biology platform and aimed at understanding the activity pattern of complex mixtures in complex systems. In recent studies using Systems Biology as the basis for MDPT studies we have found opportunities to measure biological effects in animals and humans opening up for the first time the opportunities to explore a novel strategic position for TNO in between the major life science activities Food and Pharma, while having strong plant science as a basis.