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A jar of browny-green goo is all it took to end Dr Stephen Minger's doubtsabout whether traditional Chinese medicine could teach anything to Western science. When a colleague walked into the leading stem cell scientist's lab at King's College London with a Chinese remedy that he believed could boost brain cell growth, and asked if he could test his theory on some neurons that Dr Minger had grown in his lab, he wasn't keen.

"My first thought was 'you're not putting that on my cells'. But it turned out to be amazing stuff. It really stimulated the cells to grow; they grew like weeds," recalls Dr Minger, the ponytailed scientist who has has been in the spotlight since 2003, when his team created the UK's first lab-grown human embryonic stem cells. These are the "blank-slatecells that have the power to turn into any cell of the body and may be key in producing more effective treatments for diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson's.

But for all of his scientific credentials, Dr Minger is about to step out of the conventional and into the alternative. At the time of the "green-goo" incident, neither he nor his colleague had the time or money to investigate further the ancient remedy that produced such an astonishing effect. But the experience stayed with Dr Minger and he began to view Chinese medicine in a different light. If its remedies could make brain cells grow, could they help to treat diseases that destroy the brain such as Alzheimer's?

Now the Government has asked him to head a two-year project aimed at strengthening links between UK and Chinese scientists. He immediately thought of using the project as a way of probing the ancient cures of traditional Chinese medicine, often referred to as TCM, to see if they can be converted into modern treatments.

The project starts this month. Dr Minger will fly to Shanghai to bring together Alzheimer's scientists in the UK with Chinese researchers in the hope of mining TCM for new medicines for the disease. He believes that the traditional system, based on energy flow in the body, yin and yang, anecdotal evidence and treatments made from ground-up plant and animal products, can help evidence-based Western medicine. So do many drug developers in the West who are turning their attention to TCM in the hope that the thousands of remedies in its armoury may have tangible biological and therapeutic effects.
"I think there are clearly active ingredients in some of these plant extracts which have potent biological effects," says Dr Minger. "It's not that surprising when you look at the fact that Taxol, a cancer treatment, originally came from yew, and aspirin from willow. Assuming that this project works, TCM could represent a whole new class of drugs that no one has had access to before."

He believes that there is a pressing need for new Alzheimer's treatments. "It is such a huge healthcare burden; it's projected to bankrupt most Western countries in the next 50 years. There are almost no therapies and the existing ones work only on a subset of people. Plus, in most cases, they only slightly slow the progression of the disease."

Rebecca Wood, the chief executive of the Alzheimer's Research Trust, agrees that looking for potential cures in Chinese medicine could open up new avenues of treatment. "It's always worth looking at the unusual. We shouldn't assume we've got all the answers here. Just because something is traditional doesn't mean that it doesn't have active compounds in it."

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